How To Use 20 Seconds of Courage To Do Hard Things

20 seconds.

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

It could change your life.

I know 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, 20 seconds is often more than enough to change one’s path.

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:

What does 20 seconds of courage have to do with leveling up our lives? 

We Can Do Things Differently

As we think about our lives and how much we think we might be stuck on a certain path…

There are two realizations that might help us break free:

REALIZATION #1: Our lives are made up of a never ending series of decisions that actually take very little time:

  • Walking through a door.
  • Picking a seat on the train.
  • Signing up for a class.
  • Starting an uncomfortable conversation.
  • Filling out a form.

Of course, there’s lot of internal thought, plenty of inertia, and years of ingrained behavior that happen before an action is taken…but the action itself is often a split second.

This means that no matter what decisions we’ve made up until now, we still have infinite paths available to us moving forward.

As Alan Watts points out:

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago.

I’m reminded of this amazing graphic from my friend Tim Urban at Wait But Why:

an image showing that we have infinite branching paths available to us starting today

Each decision creates a new branching path in our history. We can’t change the past, but we can decide to make act differently moving forward and change our fate.

REALIZATION #2: Humans (especially us nerds) tend 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, a 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 wired to avoid 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.

But boy it can be life changing at best, or a lesson learned at worst:

As author Brandon Sanderson points out[1]:

“I can do hard things. Doing hard things has intrinsic value, and they will make me a better person, even if I end up failing.”

Why 20 Seconds of Courage works

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 learn a lesson and 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! And you can develop some crucial self-compassion.
  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:

  1. Identify the thing you terrified of.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 (preferably after).

Just focus on the 20 seconds required for you to start or complete the action that is needed for you to change your path.

And then, welp… you’ve already started, and the hard part is done, might as well keep going:

  • 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? 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 person 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 wanted to come introduce myself. 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…”

Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

A life where you actually might get what you want and deserve begins with 20 seconds of courage.

Make the step. Approach that person.

Sign up for that club/class/speaking engagement.

Have that uncomfortable conversation you’ve been avoiding.

Finally be honest with yourself and confront the monsters in Pandora’s Box.

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.

“Steve this is great. But I’m still cautious and Matt Damon is cool and all, but give me nerdy 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 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), 

  • Leading an army of Transformers against the Decepticons.
  • Saying yes to something you’d normally say no to.
  • Eating a new vegetable that you’d normally avoid.
  • Going to that part of the gym that you’re afraid of.
  • Establishing boundaries with your family.
  • Having an uncomfortable conversation.
  • Taking more initiative at work.
  • Doing a new workout/exercise.
  • Talking to a complete stranger.
  • Signing up for a new class.
  • Standing up for yourself.
  • Buying a Zoo.

Change can happen in an instant, and your life’s path can change as a result of any single decision you make.

I think this quote paints that picture better than most:

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

Fortune favors the bold, and doing sh** 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).

Just 20 seconds!



photos: berserker, fire poibeast mode

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