If you look up synonyms for courage, you’ll find words like: bravery, fearlessness and tenacity.
And, without much consideration, you can easily settle on why these values and virtues would be in each other’s company. They all point to determination and fierceness. They help a person push past challenges in pursuit of a desired outcome.
But, they are separate words for a reason, and that reason is because their meanings are slightly different. I’m going to highlight some of those differences, not to have a mini masterclass in etymology, but rather to show respect to a complex, unmatched virtue. I love courage, and I feel a tiny twinge of agitation when I hear words mixed up with my beloved. There is no substitute for courage … no matter how many words a thesaurus lists next to it.
Maya Angelou called it “the most important of all the virtues.” And, Aristotle said that it is “the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.” They said those things about courage — not bravery or tenacity.
So, what’s the difference between all these words?
Well, first … courage is a choice to face a risk for a worthy purpose.
Bravery ≠ Courage
Bravery is often described as a quality of being able to confront frightening things, unflinchingly and without showing fear. But, unlike courage, bravery doesn’t specify a requirement or give guidance for what that difficult, frightening action must be. This means the types of actions that could be labeled as brave are vast and indiscriminate.
Someone could show bravery by picking up dog poop with their bare hand or by walking the ledge of a skyscraper. For an action to be considered courageous, however, it must be done for a worthy purpose. And, a worthy purpose is one that is internally motivated and aligns with a person’s values. Courage thrives on intrinsic motivation, whereas, bravery can be applied to actions that are done for external rewards, internal purposes or no purpose at all.
Courage is a choice to face a risk for a worthy purpose.
Fearlessness ≠ Courage
Being fearless, quite literally, translates to being without fear, which makes the absence of fear a requirement for this quality. A person attempting to show fearlessness in the process of doing hard, risky things must somehow shut off the natural, biological response that surfaces when threats are perceived. That’s not the case with courage. Courage does not obligate a person to have or lack fear. It only requires that they manage it in order to pursue a worthwhile aim. In fact, courage is a path to fearlessness. Once a person has conjured the courage to do something over and over again, they can manage fear for that particular action to zero, which gets them to fearlessness.
Tenacity ≠ Courage
Tenacity is defined as persistence in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired. While it is undeniably an important quality to have, it isn’t quite the same as courage. Tenacity doesn’t call for an action to include a risk. It only necessitates that an actor keep going. Meanwhile, an action cannot be considered courageous if it doesn’t include a risk to the actor.
A person can be tenacious in knocking down all the milk bottles at the state fair or in winning a hotdog eating contest. These actions may be marked by persistence, but they lack exposure to danger. Additionally, tenacity is unidirectional. It describes actions that are enduring, and it doesn’t leave room for quitting. At times, the most courageous action a person can take is to stop. This important part of courage is echoed perfectly by author Toni Morrison, who said “sometimes it takes more guts to quit that to keep on.”
Courage is a nuanced, incomparable virtue, and no substitute word accurately captures its depth. The synonyms of courage, instead, represent a fraction of its power and potential. That’s no knock to bravery, fearlessness and tenacity. It’s just the truth. So, the next time you hear someone yell “be brave” or “be fearless” to a kid before a tough audition or a first day of school, ask yourself if what they really mean is “be courageous?”