Audacity, by its nature, breeds polarized responses. Here’s how you can judge whether your next audacious act will be a catalyst for good.
I recently gave a talk at a conference, and afterward people came up to shake my hand and say things like: “One of the best!” and “You should be a keynote!” A follow-up LinkedIn request even asked to learn more and to collaborate. I felt great. A few weeks later, however, I received written feedback that included comments like: “Horrible!,” “Made me uncomfortable,” and “Who does he think he is?” The last comment was especially painful and ironic given that my topic was “interpersonal mindfulness.”
In that talk I ranted a bit about what I call “McMindfulness,” a psychologized, pop spirituality approach that overemphasizes individual practice and forgets its roots in spiritual friendship. I emphasized that spiritual friendship—rather than stress relief or health promotion—is a traditional cornerstone of mindfulness as a deep mystical journey. I quoted the Upaddha Sutta, where a monk tells the Buddha that at least half of the holy life is about having admirable companions on the spiritual path. In response, the Buddha exclaimed, “Don’t say that! It is the whole of the path!”
Who would have thought this message could be so polarizing? Imagine what people thought when the Buddha abandoned his life as a prince: when such teachings were truly audacious. But of course the messages of the Buddha—and many other spiritual teachers—were truly audacious. That’s why they stuck.
I sometimes open my talks with a quote from Neale Donald Walsch: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” This time, I jumped right in because I felt some urgency about exposing the “McMindfulness” contrivance and wanted to take a risk. In fact, I wrote a book titled Raw Coping Power, which argues that life is not just about bouncing back from stress. It is also about actively seeking out challenges with an attitude of Bring It! or Let’s Do This!
So, literally trying to walk my talk, I chose to walk around rather than speak from the podium. I gave some serious self-reflection and peer-to-peer exercises to challenge listeners to share their experience—in a way that obviously caused discomfort. So, in retrospect, I was audacious. But had I struck a chord, irritating some edge of personal growth? Or was I just being provocative?
The teachings of the Buddha and Jesus and the Declaration of Independence are audacious in the extreme. But so was Adolf Hitler. How can we discern positive from negative audacity? If you are a Native American, you might be less impressed with Jesus and the Declaration of Independence. Is it just about who wins?
What is audacity?
Bold disrespect, the essence of audacity, can be perceived as either positive or negative. Bold acts of disrespect run a wide gamut from the ordinary to extraordinary, from history-changing events to outbursts on social media. Rudeness is perhaps the most familiar form, found in conversation (“How dare he say that!?”), in public behavior (someone pushes past on a waiting line without even an “excuse me”), and in relationships (your best friend starts dating your ex the same day you broke up).
But what we tend to overlook is that audacity, by its very nature, breeds polarized responses. Even in its very highest forms, people will be either inspired or triggered. Or both. The perpetrator—the catalyst—will be loved by some and crucified by others. So the main question is: How can you cultivate a more positive orientation toward your own audacity? How can you discern whether your next audacious act is deliberate, thoughtful, and virtue-inspired or spontaneous, off-the-cuff, and capricious? Is there some abiding value, some higher meaning to your audacity? Or are you being irreverent just to get attention, Twitter hits, or political votes?
Below are seven qualities that, when taken together, can result in positive audacity. The traits are listed in sequence—development of earlier ones can be a prerequisite for those that come later. The list is not a prescription. Audacity is always defined by our local tribe, the times we live in, the social context, and the persuasive sway of the “fool who rushes in.” In the final analysis, you must judge whether your audacious act is doing the right thing, for the right purpose, in the right way.
The 7 Traits of Positive Audacity
1. Raw Coping Power. In my book, I define audacity as the counterpoint to resilience, which has been overrated of late. Life is not just about bouncing back from stress. We also need to actively seek out challenges, take decisive action. Doing so transforms our stress into a positive resource for growth or enlightenment. Raw coping power is a bedrock fundamental human trait; it runs in our blood and our genes. It provides the impulse, the energy, and the “juice” to take bold acts. You can have all the following qualities but, without the juice, your audacity won’t even get noticed.
2. Self-Worth. Individuals who have strong raw coping power but have either very low or very high self-worth can exhibit negative audacity. Without self-worth, bold acts may come across as cocky, narcissistic, and self-aggrandizing. On the other hand, high self-esteem can be effective when one pays attention to his or her own needs while also caring for others. The fictional character Captain James Kirk of Star Trek is often seen taking audacious acts in defiance of Starfleet, but his self-worth rarely gets in the way of his need to protect his crew and his ship.
3. Values and Virtues. Positive audacity requires a well-formed intention shaped by values such as love of humanity and social justice. We believe that values of universalism or benevolence are ultimately stronger than those of self-direction, achievement, and power. When we act from such convictions, our behaviors consistently become means to a higher end. We act with integrity. Others have explained the importance of values to positive audacity. These include James Collins’ idea of a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) in Built to Last and Brené Brown’s call to put our common humanity before our individual need to succeed.
4. Heedful Irreverence. Let’s say you have raw coping power, the right degree of self-worth, and a strong belief in some benevolent truth. And now you feel compelled to challenge a prevailing social norm that stands in the way of that truth. But you also don’t want to stir up trouble for the sake of it. You’re not some hooligan or rebel without a cause. You want your irreverence to be mindful of others. Terrorist acts come from provocateurs who pour their raw coping power into some monolithic value, with but one heedless way to express it. The concept of heedful irreverence provides an antidote; it combines the work of the psychotherapist Marsha Linehan and the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Linehan uses an irreverent communication style that, in playful and caring ways, confronts and challenges patients. She shocks them into taking a hard look at areas of stuckness that keep them from well-being. Ryle’s Concept of Mind (1949) describes heed as purposeful, conscientious, attentive, consistent, and critical. To be positively audacious, bold acts of disrespect should be heedful at the same time.
5. Skillful Means. The word upaya in Mahayana Buddhism denotes “skillful means” and refers to any activity crafted to facilitate the spiritual enlightenment of others. Spiritual teachers use different stories and metaphors for different audiences, taking into consideration their existing level of understanding. Zen Buddhist teachers have used skillful means in audacious ways, either shouting at, hitting, or requiring strenuous physical acts from their students, who then became enlightened. These acts are well-timed to shock the student at the right moment for their awakening. Positive audacity—when truly designed to help others—balances a compassionate form of planning with a willingness to embrace risk. As in Zen, this can take many years of training.
6. Fully Embracing Risk. Audacity involves courage in the face of risk of some kind, such as rejection, embarrassment, or criticism. Purpose-oriented and skillful aspects of positive audacity fully embrace this risk, whereas the more selfish and expedient aspects of negative audacity ignore and may even be blind to risk. There is a big difference between “I don’t care what you think of me” and “I care what you think of me, but after carefully weighing my options, I believe that this will help us all in the long term, even though it will cause discomfort or disagreement.”
7. The Quantum Nudge. The poet Shams i Tabriz wrote: “If you don wings of love, you can ascend without the need of steps.” Positive audacity is ultimately an act of love, one that has gathered energy from the previous qualities. The quantum nudge is a call-to-action not a performance, an effort to inspire truth not just to leave a mark. The act is artful in how it produces a quantum shift or transformation toward well-being and higher consciousness in those to whom the act is directed.
Clearly, thoughtful acts of positive audacity require uncommon skill. They involve courage, conscientiousness, creativity, and spiritual health. Something within
the human spirit gets sparked when we witness such acts, sensing deep inspiration behind the boldness. Your bold risks may appear disrespectful to some social groups or norms. But, when carried out in mindful ways, they can jolt us into a precious type of awareness—one that produces growth and healing, and perhaps even fosters spiritual friendship.
Archetypes For the Positively Audacious
Positive audacity comes in all shapes and sizes—and manifests in a variety of different archetypes. What unites these varied characters at the highest level is that their audacity comes from compassion rather than cleverness; from a desire to join with others rather than to upstage or defeat them; and from humility rather than grandiosity. Which ones inspire you to be audacious?
These can be athletes, activists, scientists, inventors, and even personal friends or family whose actions set higher expectations, bringing more goodness and hope for humanity into the world.
The Jester or Trickster.
In royal courts and mythology, the King counted on the Jester to be audacious, to mix truth telling with insult, and provoke ideas for entertainment and thought. In various cultures, the Trickster also acts boldly to awaken the individual or group from unconscious loyalty.
It is important to distinguish between martyrs who put their own lives at risk for a noble cause they love versus those terrorists and suicide bombers who desire to kill people they hate.
In the Iroquois legend, the Peacemaker helped to create the Five Nations Confederacy through his ability to persuade warring nations to come together after great effort and discussion. The Peacemaker reminds us of one who employs nonarrogant audacity: one who can commit to persistently acting on values of harmony, peace, and unity.
There are pioneers in all areas of life, in exploration (earth and beyond), science, medicine, and technology, as well as in consciousness, the arts, and philosophy. Leaving the past behind, they set out on a path never before taken. Those left behind consider these pioneers audacious for being both willing and able to do so.
The term “disruptive innovation” refers to inventions that create whole new markets—new ways of seeing and new ways of being. Our modern business world loves this archetype.
The warrior as violent aggressor is the predominant archetype for audacity in the modern world. But there are other types of warriors who fight for a benevolent or spiritual cause. Again, consider the context: an individual seen as a victorious warrior by one group may be seen as a terrorist by another. Carlos Castaneda emphasized the need to be a warrior on the path of knowledge: “Only as a warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge. A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possible be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges.”
How Would Others Rate Your Next Audacious Act?
The media expose us to negative acts of audacity—self-serving, insulting, hurtful, violent, and even evil—and features these significantly more than acts of positive audacity. Increasing the latter, in the news, in our human species, and in each of our lives, is a worthy goal. As you consider your next audacious act, ask yourself which of these words might other people use to describe it? How might you use the seven qualities and archetypes to improve your rating?
Your Foundation May Be the Weight That’s Crushing You
One of the former editors of this magazine was raped as a girl and carried the secret shame of it until the day she decided to parachute out of an airplane and write about her pain and her leap and her liberation. In the process she transformed the burden she had carried into a foundation to stand on—and to help pull others out of their own pain. Is there a similar pain in your life? A burden holding you down? What is the positive, audacious act that will transform that burden into your own foundation? —S&H Editors
Joel Bennett, PhD, President of Organizational Wellness & Learning Systems, is author of Raw Coping Power: From Stress to Thriving; Heart-Centered Leadership (with Susan Steinbrecher), and the just-released Well-Being Champions: A Competency-Based Guidebook.