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


Back in the day, I was on a plane and watched an obscure Matt Damon movie I’d never heard of: 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

“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!


PS: This week’s Rebel Hero is Mike, who took his daughter and niece on an epic hike in his Nerd Fitness gear:

Want to be the next Rebel Hero? Send a photo of you doing something epic in your NF Gear to so we can feature you in future posts!


photos: berserker, watch, fire poibeast mode

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  • RunRight

    I mustered 20 seconds of courage and road a mountain bike for the first time. Was I afraid, absolutely! Did I fall off of a cliff, No! Will I do it again and make cool friends, you betcha!

  • Gazza

    Awesome to read this again. 20s of courage was used this week by attending a job interview I didn’t really think I’d get (only partially qualified for the position). It’s been ages since I’ve done the old job hunt, putting up with a fairly crap job for the sake of comfort. So nervous as hell posting off the resume. A week of wondering if anything will come of it and they call me in for an interview earlier this week. I don’t interview well. One on one convos freak me out and I really don’t like being interrogated. Which is why I get nervous applying for jobs. Oddly enough rejection is easier to deal with than acceptance because acceptance means interrogation by strangers. A grueling hour and a half later (only needed 20s to turn up. Once in I’m trapped and have to do what I can.) the interview is over. Still waiting to see if anything comes of it and, of course, going over every little thing in my head and berating myself for each and every perceived mistake. But still, I did it. I’d better bloody well get a job out of this because I’ve been knocked out for 3 days after.

  • Barbara Stockinger

    This month was already full of a few smaller 20-seconds-moments.
    I had to find the courage to maneuver mountain trails I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with (because we had to get to our next overnight stop). I could have handled it better, but I still think I’m getting better at it. I’ve had way worse.

    I was staying alone in a hotel for the first time and took 20 seconds of courage to go to the spa area by myself to enjoy the sauna instead of just watching a movie in my room. I almost would have missed out on that.

    I signed up for my first LARP and this time I’m definitely going to go, not like some years ago where I talked a friend into signing up with me and then panicking and abandoning her to go by herself. I already met some of the other players and I think it will be great fun!

    Also we started my first proper pen&paper game (Apocalypse World) and I chose a character that would not be the easist choice (Hocus). I suck at playing her and I almost regret choosing her, but instead of giving up like I probably would, I’m gonna continue trying to play her and get better at improv and playing!

    Let’s see what else this month brings 🙂

  • Cat

    A few collegues at my work are organizing a mountainbiking weekend in Germany. I cycle a lot, but I have never tried mountainbiking (in fact, I live in the Netherlands, so the entire country is flat – I’m not used to hills at all!). At first, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy an entire weekend of something I hadn’t tried before, but I figured I should just use my 20 seconds of courage to sign up. That’s what I did, and I’m really looking forward to it now!

  • Wendy Farley

    Rather a long post….No it is a very long post….
    My latest 20 seconds of courage happened around 10 p.m. last night. I was attending the Boston performance of Cirque du Soleil’s show Luzia. (My fourth time.) Yesterday I attended the 4 p.m. and the 8 p.m. show. It’s a fantastic show! So after seeing both shows, I was so filled with joy and gratitude, that during the finale when each performer comes out to take a bow, it took me 20 seconds of courage to jump out of my seat and give each performer a standing ovation. Now, much to my surprise out of the 500 hundred folks in the audience, I was the only one standing, clapping and dancing to the music. “Sit down and don’t make a fool of yourself, ” demanded the old voice of fear in my head. However, my 20 seconds of courage extended to 5-10 minutes as I clapped with enthusiasm for the clown and his amazing humorous antics, for the grace of the cyr wheel dancers and for the beauty and agility of the pole dancers, for the Russian swing acrobats who took my breath away with their death defying flips high in the air along with the Lucha Libre on heart-stopping big swing, for the playfulness of the feathered hoop divers, for the straps demi-God, for the magnificent soul moving music performed live, for the running lady with the giant Monarch butterfly wings, for the giant puppet/human horse and jaguar, for the amazing raining stage with the disappearing props, and for the anatomy defying extreme bendiness of Alexie, the contortionist and so much more. I stood and I clapped and clapped. Imagine as each performer walks to the front of the stage they see you and only you as you are standing in the second row, front stage. Each performer looks you in the eye. You acknowledge their bravery and worth with joy and love and in return they acknowledge your bravery and worth with joy and love. It was an amazing experience! As special treat and honor, my daughter and I were part of a group of about 10 people who were given a back stage experience. My daughter had her 20 seconds of courage (courage is contagious) when she showed Alexie, the contortionist drawings she did of him and some of the other performers. Extra, extra special special treat for bravery—–> Before we left, Alexie said he wanted to give us both a hug and did. Also, a result of many 20 seconds of courage, my daughter was invited to join the Luzia staff when they return to Texas in January. It is amazing what 20 seconds of courage can do. Note: courage does seem to build and get stronger with use much like a muscle. Prior to this, I challenged myself to do something different instead of playing computer solitaire at night. The result was going to two new places, The Library and Luthier’s Coop where I can socialize instead of isolate. The Library had a special Harry Potter night which drew my attention. I did not dress up as I was not that brave. However, after a 20 seconds of courage and a discussion with the bartender, I came back as a Hogwart’s Substitute divination teacher dressed in Victorian attire and friends were made. What attracted me to Luthier’s Coop was the lure of 50s, 60s and 70s music, videos and dancing. I went to dance to find only a few folks there. No band. No one dancing. I planned to leave but mentioned to the bartender that I was hoping there would be dancing and she invited me to dance. So I danced. The other folks did not but they did not make me feel weird at all either. At the end of the night after dancing and telling true ghost stories, I was invited back Monday and also invited to go to an Ecstatic Dance (new to me) which I did…and…I actually danced with a fellow 10 years younger than me who looked like David Duchovny from the X-files. It was amazing and a bit terrifying. At the end of the dance, the organizer was looking for help to clean up. Not even knowing what that entailed I immediately offered my assistance. The organizer said she had been doing this event for almost 2 years and this was the fastest cleanup ever. She asked what would it take for me to attend all her events. I cannot say enough about the 20 seconds of courage challenge. Note: I am 60 years young and 100+ plus pounds overweight. I am no longer too old or too fat to live the life I want. If I can do it, you can do it, too!

  • Pukka1

    I’m changing my diet. Took the plunge – dove into some reading, shopping & ultimately discovered that bone broth works for me. Asking the butcher for bones was pretty scary. I felt as if I needed to speak in a conspiratorial voice! (LOL!)I haven’t yet gone 100% to the anti-inflammation diet, but I am getting there. I even found the courage to talk with a coworker about it & was surprised to learn he is on a similar path.

  • Brooke Justus-Fradd

    I wore a pair of mid-thigh shorts today. Typed out, it seems kinda lame. I’m not a huge fan of my legs and and this was a huge step for me.

  • Shelli Hall

    I’m not an outdoorsy person at all. I’ll go for runs on well-maintained trails, but aside from that, the way I “enjoy the outdoors” is a craft beer on a back porch. I mean, come on…there are just way too many little bugs, creepy crawlers and big scary animals, all with bad intentions. Couple that with a complete lack of sense of direction…well, you can imagine. However, along one of the trails I run, there are signs posted pointing to a trail through the woods and, for some reason, I’ve always said I wanted to go on that trail. I’ve been waiting for a time I can go with my husband, since he has a sense of direction and is outdoorsy, but we have a toddler, so opportunities are few and far between. This weekend, I was out on my normal run by myself and I saw the signs pointing into the woods. I stopped and thought about it and remembered this article. I took a deep breath, turned off my headphones so I could hear if something big and scary was coming toward me, and stepped off the beaten path. I am proud to say I finished the portion of the wooded trail I was on without getting lost, bitten or eaten alive! Oh, and I didn’t pee myself either!

  • Wren

    I signed up for a 5k mud run. I’ve never done any race before, so I am still a little nervous, but I am looking forward to it. Bonus: I mentioned it at work and now one of my coworkers is going to run it with me!

    Second 20SOC: A former coworker who is now the president of the national professional organization for our profession asked if I wanted to go on the ballot as a possible board-nominated, member-elected board member. I sent in my acceptance and information for the election yesterday. Now I just have to wait for the election to happen.

  • Gavin Flynn

    I ended up doing three so far during my vacation. I was on Orcas Island for most of it.
    First, there is a small island you can access by foot only 40 days of the year. I wanted to go out to the furthest part, but it was very rocky with jagged coral & barnacle covered rocks. I kept going. Eventually, I got out to the furthest contiguous part, and realized I could make it to the “furthest-furthest” little outcropping if I was willing to wade through the water. It freaked me out. I decided not to do it. Then I remembered the 20 seconds of courage. I had to take a few moments, but I did it. Once I’d done it, it felt like such a little thing, and I realized how much I was letting fear hold me back.
    Second, my wife and I walked around a lake, and came to a bridge that spanned the lake and a little lagoon. Kids and a few adults were jumping off the bridge into the water. I haven’t done something like that in decades. Already armed with my earlier victory, I told my wife I wanted to jump off the bridge. She said “I want to take photos!” And then the reality of what I said hit me. Oh crap! I watched the people jumping. I waited a while. Maybe they would finish and leave, so I wouldn’t have to jump in front of people. I’m a 51 year old, overweight balding guy. Surely they would sense I needed a little privacy. My wife asked me if I was going to jump in. I said in a minute. More than a minute (or 10) passed by. My wife asked me again, was I going to jump in? OK, I kicked off my shoes and walked up to the bridge. A brief lull in the kids and adults appeared, and I crawled over the railing. I didn’t give myself more than a second to look over and wave at my wife. I jumped.
    Woo HOOO!!!!! Hot damn, that felt great! I was practically a teen-ager again. OK, a fat, balding teenager, but I jumped off a freaking bridge!
    Third moment of courage means the most to me. My wife and I have recently started marital counseling, and one of my challenges is to share my feelings without going into a 10 minute explanation that patronizes my wife. My counselor has challenged me to share my feelings in one short sentence, and then shut up and be quiet. She gave me that challenge weeks ago, and so far I have failed to do so except in the counseling sessions. With those two moments of courage victories under my belt, I was ready for a real challenge. The next night, I noticed feeling upset. Then I remembered my counselor’s challenge. Then I remembered the 20 SOC challenge and my oh-so-recent victories. I felt the fear and then I just did opened my mouth, shared my feelings, and shut my mouth.
    This worked like the counselor said it would. (It helps that my wife is practicing letting me feel without arguing.) I’m not going to go into a lot of details about this challenge, but I have to say this is the one that makes me proudest. I’m a happy Nerd.

  • Miranda Mitchell-Caggiano

    Most recently, I used my 20 seconds to ask my doctor for a referral that I’ve been avoiding for a long time. I’ve been using those 20 second moments a lot since first reading the article. It has helped me get started on the mandatory driving course for my province, take on an extra evening class, etc.

  • Data_Error

    Great update to an already-great article!

    As someone who leans perhaps a bit too much into their comfort zone, the “20 Seconds of Courage” idea is great for pushing myself forward and upward.

    My own hobby blog has been sagging – I post just once every two weeks, and even then I often barely make it in before the weekend is over – so I just used that 20 seconds to commit myself to Blaugust (a month-long blogging challenge). It’s gonna have consequences for an entire month, but ones that – like exercise does for fitness – are almost certainly going to temper my writing ability and overall work ethic going forward.

  • Thanks for sharing your story Shannon, and congrats on overcoming your fear of scuba diving! I totally know what you mean – I definitely panicked the first time i went under the water and had to remind myself that I could BREATHE!

  • Hey Harklyn, that’s a huge step, so props to you for reaching out to him. I’m sure that wasn’t easy and you needed every bit of those 20 seconds to send that email!

  • Woot! Congrats!

  • Amazing! And I go to movies by myself ALL THE TIME. It’s the best 🙂

    Congrats to you on doing that 🙂

  • Woot woot!

  • amazing 🙂

  • Nikki

    I’m taking my someone special on a 5 mile hike to the waterfall at Buffalo River, AR. Then I’m gonna…*propose*. Considering I couldn’t run 2 years ago…this hike is going to be amazing. Wish me luck everyone…The big day is Saturday.

  • Christopher Durkin

    Running a RPG for a group of friends. I’ve never run a game, so I’m going with Honey Heist. 2 weeks to prep.

  • Alba Amador

    I bought a new bathing suit (I haven’t bought one since high school). There was a moment of doubt as I considered just keeping my over clothes on into the pool but I mustered up the courage to take my shirt and shorts off and guess what? There were no sirens going off and no one gasped in horror. No one stared or made rude comments and I got to enjoy the pool with my friends.

  • Molly B Dill

    I really want to start running. I go to a park before my class at the gym and I only ever walk because for some reason Im too scared to pick up the pace in front of other people who really couldnt care less. Yesterday, because of this article, I used my 20soc and did it. I ran. It wasnt a long run, and I was definitely winded, but it was a start. I ran three times and I cant wait to go do it again.

  • Ealde3

    This has been transformatively useful! I finally managed to get a job, and it’s a short term contract to interview people, and I have been using 20soc each time I need to ask someone (I usually really struggle to start conversations and ask people to help/do things for me, and this plays on both those weaknesses). I also used it to book an appointment with my doctor to start my transition! (Now I will have a bit of money from the work)
    Big things are happening thanks to these moments of courage 🙂 Thank you Steve and NF!

  • Kathleen

    I went on a cave tour last Sunday and there was a moment where you could explore a very narrow and dark passageway on your own. Normally I would have bailed because I was already out of my comfort zone — spiders and small spaces are not for me. But I took a breath and did it. And it was cool and I was so pleased that I did. Beginning of the new me.

  • Brittany Ferguson

    Hey Shelli! I’m Brittany and I work with Steve at Nerd Fitness. Would you mind emailing me at with the subject line 20SOC? We have something special for you. 🙂

  • Awesome concept!! This concept can also be used to avoid cheating on a diet. 20 sec to say no to that cupcake.