There’s a scene in the 1995 James Bond film, Goldeneye, with Pierce Brosnan as the iconic British spy, in which Bond is under attack and taking cover behind a concrete pillar. A bullet hits the pillar mere inches from his face and he nonchalantly cocks his head away from the impact without so much as a flinch.
In another scene he’s driving a stolen tank while chasing the bad guys through the streets of St. Petersburg. After he smashes through yet another building, he coolly takes a moment to straighten his tie.
Although the majority of superheroes have always, and rather chauvinistically, been men, we can also count on Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and others to save us in a jam.
But whether it’s Chris Evans as Captain America or Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, our culture has created a conception of fearlessness that is all about guts and glory. The kick ass hero who’s afraid of nothing and no one and will run into a burning building to save a kitten and then humbly deflect any adulation as they head off into the sunset.
Our heroes are impregnable. Bullets bounce off them, they never stay down and, aside from the occasional rip in their leotards, they never even get cut or scratched. Once in a while their creator will give them one small flaw, just to make the story line more interesting. But we always know who’s going to win in the end.
None of these characters could ever be real because they’re missing a key trait that makes us all human – vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to know that things might not turn out all right, but to go ahead and dive in anyway. And that is living fearlessly.
Living fearlessly isn’t about being afraid of nothing. It’s about having the courage to be crap-your-pants scared, but choosing to go ahead and try it anyway.
Why on earth would we go ahead and try it anyway? Because to stay where we are has become unbearably painful. And because the place where we might end up could be glorious.
In contrast to those action heroes who always defeat the bad guy who comes from somewhere else, our kryptonite lies inside us. We carry it around with us every day. The things we’re most afraid of aren’t out there in the world, they’re inside our heads.
They are the beliefs we hold about what we can and can’t do. Our thoughts about our limitations. The fears we carry around about what others think of us. Our fears that we don’t measure up, that we’re somehow not good enough
That’s why superheroes are so appealing. They’re everything we wish we could be so we live vicariously through them.
The fears we run from have nothing to do with aliens or evil villains. Instead, we’re afraid to say “I’m sorry” to someone we’ve hurt, to open our heart to a new love, to listen openly to a different point of view, to admit that we were wrong.
If Spider-Man ran away and hid under a rock, it would be pretty obvious. But our fears are easy to hide. You can easily go about your day without anyone ever knowing that you’re afraid to apply for that promotion and risk being turned down. It’s easy to pretend that your relationship with your kids is just fine or that you’re not really reliant on pain killers.
But you know. And in the middle of the night, those demons that have been haunting you come back to remind you of what you could be if you were willing to try.
Deciding that you’re finally going to stare those demons down is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to begin that novel you’ve had in your heart forever is living fearlessly.
Quitting that soul-crushing job without another lined up is living fearlessly.
Starting that side-hustle business before you’re ready is living fearlessly.
Walking away from that dead-end relationship is living fearlessly.
Moving alone to that new city is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to have that tough conversation is living fearlessly.
Allowing yourself to fall in love and risk getting your ass kicked by it is living fearlessly.
Only you know what living fearlessly specifically means for you.
As long as we refuse to confront those fears our lives will always be less than they could be. As long as we put the hard stuff off till Someday we’ll be looking back at what we could have been, could have done, could have had.
Action heroes never doubt that they will succeed. Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Matt Damon, Daniel Craig… The characters they play aren’t actually fearless. Because they always have bigger guns, thicker armor, better aim or cooler gadgets, their outcomes are always certain. There’s nothing for them to fear.
But our outcomes don’t have those guarantees. Which, when you’re willing to risk that emotional, financial, spiritual and social uncertainty, makes you far braver than any superhero.
True fearlessness is not about kicking ass and taking names. It’s about accepting and embracing our humanness, our vulnerability and our exposure to risk. And doing the scary thing anyway.
Brené Brown is a professor, lecturer and researcher at the University of Texas who studies the concepts of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her book, Daring Greatly, she describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” We know it as that stressful feeling that comes when we step out of our comfort zone, knowing that we may not be able to control the outcomes.
It takes tremendous courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be emotionally open, to admit that you don’t know everything, that you were wrong. We all feel the fear. The difference is in how we decide to act in the face of it.
But here’s the payoff: When we do eventually face our fears – which we always will – we invariably discover that we’re made of far superior stuff than we ever imagined