To me, it means doing the right thing even when it makes you feel stupid.
For instance, around twenty years ago — well before I was a business owner — I worked for the NHS Information Authority as a database support contractor. My job often saw me manage very large databases containing very sensitive records stored by regional UK National Health Service (NHS) authorities.
One day I was working on the patient database for Devon NHS Partnership. It was some routine work deleting some corrupted records.
Routine, except that instead of deleting the corrupted records, I managed to type a command that deleted *all* the records.
That one time I deleted the entire NHS Devon patient database…
Yikes. Any fellow IT worker who has ever done this will know that horrible sinking feeling as you stare at the screen knowing you’ve messed up, and messed up big time.
To be clear, I’d deleted every NHS patient record in the Devon regional area.
As I sat, horrified at my mistake, I immediately considered my options. I was a contractor. I’d done something very, very stupid. Was I going to get fired for this? Could I fix the situation so nobody would ever know? How much time would that take?
Resisting every urge to try to fix the issue myself, I stood straight up, walked into my boss’s office, and told him what I’d done.
Courage Over Comfort
The boss calmly picked up the ‘phone and called a colleague, a fellow support technician who had been working on that very client site earlier that day. He explained what had happened, and my colleague turned his car around, drove the hour back to the site, and restored the data from a tape backup.
Neither my boss, my colleague who had to drive an additional two hours out of his way, or the local NHS authority whose records I had ruthlessly deleted were pleased. However, I wasn’t sacked. I wasn’t disciplined. I just felt very, very stupid.
When the issue was rectified and the database records were restored, my boss reassured me that I’d certainly learn a lesson from my stupid mistake. My colleague — the one who I’d stolen two hours of his life from — later told me (after he’d had a calming night’s sleep) that he’d made a similar mistake early in his career and that I’d done the right thing by owning up to the mistake immediately.
I still shudder when I think of that incident. I’m still embarrassed by it. However, I’m proud that I did the right thing and owned up to the mistake. I laugh at the stupidity of it now, but I learned the lesson — do the right thing, even if it makes you feel stupid.
The Shopping Trolley Incident
I was reminded of this lesson recently in a (thankfully!) more mundane situation.
I live in a lovely part of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the North East of the UK. I enjoy walking in the local area. Recently, though, I’d walked past a disused Supermarket shopping trolley that had been dumped nearby. I walked past this shopping trolley each day for three days, and each day I thought “I should take that shopping trolley back to the local Supermarket” — but each day I didn’t. Why? Because I’d feel stupid pushing a shopping trolley along a road.
Stupid, right? I’m a guy who regularly picks up litter on the street and deposits it into a nearby bin. I don’t care what people think of me in those situations (although I used to). Who cares what people would think of me for pushing a shopping trolley along the main road?
Well, apparently, I did, the man who deleted the entire NHS Devon Partnership patient database, — an act much more stupid than being seen pushing a Supermarket shopping trolley along a road — didn’t pick that dumped trolley up because he was scared of looking stupid in front of strangers.
Anyway, I took a walk the other day, carrying a rather heavy bag full of books my wife wanted to donate to the local Charity Shop. The bag was uncomfortably heavy, but I fancied the walk. As I walked, I had my headphones in, listening to a Podcast — The Virgin Podcast, to be precise, with host Dominic Frisby interviewing Brene Brown on the Power of Vulnerability.
As a side note, if you’ve never watched Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability, I highly recommend it. Brown talks about Courage Over Comfort.
Indeed, Brown was talking about Courage Over Comfort as I lugged my heavy bag of books along, and I walked past that dumped shopping trolley, again.
The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me. There I was, scared to do the right thing and push the shopping trolley back to the Supermarket, all the while carrying a heavy bag — which I could deposit in the said shopping trolley, to make my life easier — while Brene Brown was telling me to ignore feelings of discomfort and do the right thing.
The Universe was surely hitting me over the head with a proverbial hammer which said: “Do the right thing, despite feeling scared!”.
I walked past the shopping trolley.
Doing The Right Thing When It Makes You Feel Stupid
I then thought back to the NHS Devon incident. And I stopped in my tracks.
I walked back to the trolley. I dropped the heavy bag in the trolley (courage AND comfort?) and started pushing it back to the supermarket.
I passed four people on the way. Each person looked at me oddly. At least, that’s how I felt. I wanted to stop and tell them I wasn’t some nutter pushing a shopping trolley around — I was doing the right thing and taking it back to the store. But really, what did they care either way?
Fifteen minutes later, I was at the Supermarket. I returned the trolley to its home. I dropped the book donations off at the Charity Shop. And I walked back home via a route now blissfully unspoiled by a dumped shopping trolley.
What is your reaction?
Some of you reading this will think this is the stupidest thing you’ve ever read. Why would anybody be worried about being seen pushing a shopping trolley along the main road?
Others will read this and think “Forget that! I’d have left the shopping trolley where it was!”.
Others still will read this and think – “Oh My Goodness. Did Richard really just publicly admit to deleting the entire NHS patient database in one of the most stupid IT acts ever?”.
I figure that everybody has their own levels of discomfort they are willing to bear in doing the right thing. But that discomfort is set by you. You have a choice on picking courage over comfort.
My level of discomfort used to be picking up litter, worrying that people would think I was a tramp. That’s long since passed. Now it’s not even pushing a shopping trolley down the main road worrying that people might think I was a tramp. Anyway, I took the shopping trolley back despite that, and I think that’s a good thing.
The lesson I’ve learned is this. As a young man, I was scared to own up to a stupid but serious mistake for fear of what other people thought. I overcame this moment of fear and nothing permanently bad happened — although it may have, if I hadn’t been brave.
Twenty years later, I was letting the fear of looking stupid in front of strangers overwhelm me with something entirely inconsequential. If I had left the shopping trolley there, nobody would have known. Nobody, except me. I’d have known.
Courage Over Comfort in blogging
I’ll go a step further and share that I felt scared of publishing this story. “Who cares?”, “What if people laugh at me” and “Who is he to preach at us?” were just three of the thoughts that ran through my head. My obvious fear of being mistaken for a tramp is another <grin>.
But I remembered the adage “Courage over Comfort” and I also remembered the advice that I regularly give my friends and clients when they’re worried about sharing their blogs with the world. They have those same fears — “Who am I to share my thoughts with the world”, “Who wants to read my stuff anyway?”, “What will people think of me?” — and I look at them bemused and wonder what they’re worried about. “Publish it and be damned!” I tell them. So I’m taking my own advice.
It’s worth remembering to always do the right thing, even when it makes you uncomfortable. I’d say *especially* when it makes you uncomfortable.
Remember, Courage Over Comfort. Look for opportunities to build your courage over being comfortable.
Stretch your comfort boundaries in your own personal and professional life.
I wouldn’t recommend deleting an NHS database, but look for your own dumped shopping trolleys to return — the small things that you avoid for fear of looking stupid.
- Pick that piece of litter up in the street, despite worrying about what people think of you.
- Ask that “stupid” question in the next team meeting at work, despite your concern over your colleagues’ reaction.
- Go the local park or gym to work out, despite feeling fat and out of shape.
Because in twenty years time, I’m guessing that you’ll be glad you did the right thing despite momentarily feeling stupid. Not only glad, but you’ll be proud you did the right thing. You’ll be proud you chose Courage Over Comfort.