How 20 Seconds of Courage can Change Your Life.

20 seconds.

Today I’m going to issue you a challenge, and it will only require 20 seconds.

And you’re going to do it. And it’s going to change your life.

Yup. 20 seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time. But I’ve come to learn that when it comes to getting healthy, taking risks, and living a life worth living, twenty seconds is often more than enough to change one’s life.

What began as a fun mental strategy to overcome fear has since become a rallying cry for our community here at Nerd Fitness. 

And today, I’m gonna help you do that thing that scares the crap out of you.

The Discovery of 20 Seconds of Courage

As I explain in the video above, today’s concept comes from an obscure Matt Damon movie: We Bought a Zoo.

In it, Matt Damon meets his wife by mustering up strength for a mere 20 seconds of courage to talk to her, despite being a complete nervous wreck before and after.

Had he never taken those 20 seconds to step outside of his comfort zone, he never would have met the love of his life.

One decision changed everything:

So what does 20 seconds of courage have to do with leveling up our lives? It comes down to 2 realizations:

REALIZATION #1: Our lives are made up of a never ending series of decisions that require less than 20 seconds of action:

  • What to eat for breakfast.
  • What workout to do at the gym.
  • Which school to attend.
  • Which job to take.
  • Who we sit next to on the train.
  • What lane to drive in.

Although our life’s path seems fairly set in stone, the direction is often set in motion as a result of a single action that took less than 20 seconds: signing a document, picking a seat, saying yes or no, swiping left or right.

Each decision can cause a new branching path in our history.

As David says in Prometheus,”Big things have small beginnings.”

REALIZATION #2: We are a species (especially us nerds) that tends to be risk averse, comfortable, and wary of doing things that scare us.

This isn’t surprising or unusual: we’re hardwired to trust our gut and be cautious of things that raise our anxiety. The decision to avoid certain things is what kept us alive during our cave-dwelling days.

In other words, wome cautious cavewoman 120,000 years ago listened to that instinct, avoided the scary noise coming out of the brush, and lived long enough to pass along her cautious genes to you today.

These days, we’re still avoiding things that scare us – not animals in the brush, but rather conversations with strangers, activities that might embarrass us, and events that are anxiety-inducing.

If we are going to get the things we actually want out of life, it’s going to require us to overcome that fear mechanism to make a decision that is counter to 120,000+ years of DNA-sequencing.

Which ain’t easy.

Enter 20 seconds of courage. 

By using 20 seconds to do something you normally would have avoided, or saying YES when you normally say NO, three amazing things happen:

  1. If it doesn’t work out, you become more resilient. You quickly learn the world didn’t end, and you are more likely to try new things in the future because failure wasn’t that bad!
  2. If it DOES work out, your life is now better as a result of your targeted bravery. A relationship, a new job, a new hobby, lifelong friend, are often results of a single decision made by somebody. This is you taking action rather than waiting for fate to intervene. 
  3. You NEVER have to wonder “what if?” when thinking about what could have been had you done that thing!

How 20 Seconds of Courage Can Change Your Life.

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne, clearly a fan of 20 Seconds of Courage.

Here’s how to implement 20 Seconds of Courage into your life:

Identify the thing you terrified of. Put ALL of your focus into a single specific action that will take less than 20 seconds but will result in you attempting the thing you’re scared of. Work yourself up into a frenzy if you need to. Give yourself a pep talk in the mirror. Recruit a buddy if you have to.

Get scared to hell before.

Pee your pants after.

Just focus on the 20 seconds where you can make a different decision than you would have made in the past.

And then go do the damn thing:

  • Afraid of the free weight section at your gym?  Turn on Berserker mode.  Give yourself 20 seconds and walk into the section before you realize how scared you are. After your 20 second are up, you can go back to being afraid, but you’re already IN the free weight section, maybe even with a weight in hand. Might as well do the workout now, right? Who cares about the people around you – they’re too busy being self conscious anyway.
  • Don’t think you can start your workout? Too tired?  Turn on the Bloodwrath, baby!  Put on a great freaking pump up song, jump around, psyche yourself up, and just GET started. Don’t worry about what happens in the 20 seconds after you get started. JUST focus on those 20 seconds that are needed to get you out of bed or out the door.
  • Afraid to sign up for a class?  Afraid to try something new?  No problem, be afraid. Sign up in those 20 seconds and make your commitment before you have a chance to back out.  All of a sudden, you’re signed up and have to follow through!
  • Are you typically a push over? Do you never stand up for yourself at work?  Beast mode. At the next meeting, take 20 seconds to really stand up for yourself and present YOUR opinions. Work up the courage to begin the conversation with your boss about getting that raise you deserve. Once you’re in the office and the conversation has begun, you might as well keep going.
  • See that cute girl/guy at the coffee shop?  Normally you say NOTHING, and then go home and wish you had?  Give yourself 20 seconds of courage. Be scared shitless before and scared shitless after, but give yourself 20 seconds of courage: “Hey, I need to get back to my friend/work, but I saw you from across the room and think you’re really cute. Can I buy you a cup of coffee sometime?” At the very least, give them a drive-by compliment. You’ll never have to wonder “what if…”

Chinese philosopher Laozi once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

A life where you actually get what you want and deserve begins with 20 seconds of courage. Make the step. Approach that girl/guy. Sign up for that club/class/speaking engagement.

It’s how Jaime, after 3 decades of struggle, managed to change her life. It started with 20 seconds of courage and a single decision:

I’ve used 20 seconds of courage dozens of time in my life too.

Sometimes with health or fitness, sometimes with relationships, and other times with my own life level up quests, which I discuss in my book, Level Up Your Life.

I’m most proud of the time I used 20 seconds of courage to perform on a street corner in NYC:

A post shared by Steve Kamb (@stevekamb) on Sep 9, 2015 at 5:29am PDT

“Steve this is great. But I’m still cautious and Matt Damon is cool and all, but give me more stories I can learn from regarding 20 seconds of courage!”

Fine! Here are my favorite examples of 20 seconds of courage: 

  • Super Mario Bros: Star Power makes Mario invincible for a short amount of time. He’s normal before and after, but in those few seconds he can cover some serious ground and wipe out a LOT of Koopas.
  • Transformers: Some transformers had the ability to transform from a robot into an animal form, just for a time. This was referred to as “Beast Mode!”
  • Ancient Viking lore: Berserkers were Norse warriors who worked themselves into a rage before battle, and fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury.
  • Lord Urthstripe in the Redwall Series: A badger lord who goes into “bloodwrath” mode to vanquish his foes.
  • Will Ferrell in Old School:  He puts together less than 20 seconds of pure genius in his debate with James Carville. Sure, afterwards he has no recollection of his answer (and before he was probably freaking out), but this 20 seconds saved his fraternity:

The 20 seconds Of Courage Challenge!


Today, I’m issuing a 20 Seconds of Courage Challenge. 

You have 7 Days. Not to watch a VHS tape, but to use 20 Seconds of Courage to do something you’re scared of.

Everybody is fighting their own demons and chasing their own dragons (not a euphemism), 

Change can happen in an instant, and your life’s path can change as a result of any single decision you make. And I think this quote paints that picture better than most:

“Easy choice, hard life. Hard choice, easy life.”

Fortune favors the bold, and doing shit that scares us is often the only way to actually get what we want out of life.

So here’s how to not let that fear keep you prisoner: 20 Seconds of Courage!

Here’s how to participate:

  • Pick something you want to do but have been too scared to attempt.
  • Freak the F out before you do the thing.
  • Muster up 20 seconds of courage and take that one action.
  • Pee your pants after (optional).
  • Leave a comment below on how it goes and what you learned.

Just 20 seconds!



photos: berserker, fire poibeast mode

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