Courage Doesn’t Always Roar Like A Lion(Ess) But Sometimes It Has To

Written by
Erin Roberts
Published on
March 1, 2024
lioness standing on brown sands

Image Credit:  

Sergey Pesterev

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” 


R.J. Palacio (from Wonder)


The other day I presented my ideas for the foundations of the journey to personal wellbeing, my proposed themes for my blogs this year, to a group of young negotiators from vulnerable developing countries that I have the pleasure of working with. We had already had a discussion on how we each defined wellbeing at the end of last year. t there are many different frameworks and definitions of wellbeing. Wellbeing has been defined as “ experience of health, happiness and prosperity” by some, a “state of wellness” by others. Still others argue that wellness is not synonymous with wellbeing but rather that wellness contributes to overall wellbeing. In my view, personal wellbeing is very personal, subjective and up to each individual to decide what wellbeing means for them. Most frameworks of wellbeing include core elements such as: physical, psychological, social, cultural, economic or financial, spiritual and governance. I am by no means an expert on wellbeing and perhaps in the conceiving of this series the term “wellness” would have been more appropriate. But to me wellness doesn’t quite capture the notion of a healthy, thriving community. So I chose wellbeing. And together with the young negotiators I work with, we developed a sense of what that means for us at the end of last year. 

After presenting my ideas for building a framework to cultivate wellbeing, based on what is working for me and recognizing it may not work for others, I asked the young negotiators if there was anything they’d add or anything they felt didn’t need to be there. Or if anything was in the wrong order, and so on. We discussed what worked for each of us in our own journeys for a little while and then just as our time together was coming to an end one person said: “Sometimes wellbeing is having food on the table.”  

It was a mic drop moment. 

I was rendered silent, embarrassed and ashamed if I’m being honest. Because I’d failed to recognize my own immense privilege. I’ve never been without food, shelter or clean water. But for many people their day-to-day reality is one of having their basic and most fundamental needs unmet. Globally one in ten people face hunger, one in five in Western Asia, across Africa and in the Caribbean. Two billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and half the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year. Globally 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing with over 100 million people homeless throughout the world, a figure that is rising with displacement due to wars and other crises.  


So I want to start this next installment by stressing that this journey to wellbeing is with the caveat that our basic physiological needs are met (breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing and sleep) and that we are also safe and secure (health, employment, property, family and social ability). It’s important to also recognize that while we are talking about wellbeing, many people in the world do not feel safe. As I write, there are more than 100 armed conflicts taking place across the globe, some of which we hear about on the news, others we don’t

As a premise to this third installment in the series on wellbeing, I therefore feel compelled to acknowledge the highly privileged position that these blogs are written from: through the lens and from the perspective someone who enjoys the freedom of a healthy body, the ease of breathing, the comfort of sitting in a warm flat in a high income country, in a home with a fridge full of food, with access to clean water and so many other things that make up a life of ease. I have the privilege of pondering what it means to thrive and doing those things (for the most part).  


One of the reasons we work so hard is precisely because so many people in the world are going without. A sense of justice drives us. The urgency and scope of the needs and the fact that so many people in the world are barely surviving, and many not even that. Daily we read accounts of lives lost, livelihoods gone, homes and other infrastructure damaged beyond repair. Of despair in the face of climate change. So many stories we become numb. 

Many of us do this work because we feel passionate about making change in the world. And there is beauty in that, certainly. But the point of this series, this journey to wellbeing, is to recognize that we can do more for those on the frontlines of the climate crisis, when we are healthy and well ourselves. There is a kind of paradox in that perhaps at first. But to help others be well we must be well ourselves. 


Our journey to wellbeing began (hopefully before that) in January when we set our intention to cultivate our own wellbeing and curate a thriving community. In February, we committed to loving ourselves and now we bring in courage to push back on social and cultural conditioning that has sustained ways of working that are unhealthy for both us as individuals and for our communities of practice. Without further ado, on to courage…


“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” 


E.E. Cummings 


A few days ago, I woke up a little later than usual. I’m an early bird, not a night owl, so for me sleeping in means getting up at 7 am. That left little time to get to my workout before my first call at 8 am. But I knew I’d feel better if I did. So I hastily got my gym clothes on and walked the few minutes it takes to get to the gym. I arrived with my leggings inside out – a not so unusual phenomenon when getting dressed in the dark – but nevertheless got my workout in. With a few minutes to spare, I arrived home, made my morning smoothie (score!) and sat down at my laptop at exactly the time my first call was beginning. “I’m winning,” I thought to myself with a sly smile. 


I was still sipping my smoothie, which I held up to the camera when it was time to introduce myself, saying: “Hi, I’m Erin. Sorry if I have blackberry seeds in my teeth. I’m still finishing my morning smoothie.” 


Who says that? 

Well, evidently, I do, Dear Reader. Evidently, I do. 


The point of telling you this somewhat ridiculous story is that I made a choice that morning to put myself first. To get my workout in, but still show up at my first call on time to respect my colleagues. And that meant showing up as I was in my workout clothes with wild hair. Would it have been better for everyone, and I do mean everyone, if I’d taken the time to at least brush my hair? Of course it would have. But I didn’t think of that. What I was thinking of was showing up and participating in a discussion I’d long been wanting to engage in. 




Yes, I’m not afraid to admit that. Excited to nerd out with my colleagues about all the things we could do together. Too excited to think of anything other than cool conversations with amazing people. Or amazing conversations with cool people. And you know what Dear Reader? I’d rather look wild on the outside if that means I have the time to give myself what I need on the inside rather than look put together on the outside but be a hot mess on the inside. I’ve been there and I don’t want to go back. 


I was tempted to turn my camera off after the introductions to finish my smoothie without an audience but someone asked folks to keep their cameras on in support of the facilitator, so I did. And honestly it probably didn’t faze my colleagues at all because at this point they’re used to the way I roll. But it does still take a little courage to show up as I am. To push back on social conditioning, on the status quo bias which is keeping us all stuck. 

When you think about the fact that so many of us realize that so much of what we do isn’t working it’s astounding we keep doing those things. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, explains the insanity of status quo bias:

“Precedent is a poor reason for decisions. It calcifies the status quo without a compelling rationale. It doesn’t matter how long a tradition has stood. If the old way is wrong, it should be challenged and changed. Progress lies in improving the future, not defending the past.”

That’s what this blog is about. How to have the courage to stand up and say, “This isn’t working anymore. We need to do things differently”. Someone always needs to go first. And maybe that person will be you. 


“Freedom lies in being bold.” 


Robert Frost


Two weeks ago there was some kind of fault in the power system in my neighbourhood and I was without power for the better part of two days. I was meant to have a call early on the second morning, so I texted my colleague to tell her that I might not have power (and hence no WIFI) and suggested we do a voice call instead. Because I’d be on my mobile, I decided to do the call while walking in a nearby meadow. I often walk while I’m on working group calls and sometimes on bilateral calls too. So, it wasn’t unusual. But I still struggle with this idea that it’s somehow not professional. It’s not that I felt that my colleague was judging me. She is lovely (as all my colleagues are) but somehow I felt that I was doing something wrong. So, I told her that. That I was really struggling with status quo bias. I recounted one of the ways in which this bias had been reinforced. 


A few years ago I was on a call, at the very beginning of the pandemic, and the colleague I was speaking with said something about the standard practice for calls being to be in front of your laptop with the camera on. At that point most of my calls were voice calls as many of my colleagues (and sometimes myself) had unstable internet connections and we needed to preserve bandwidth. The comment arose because I didn’t want to turn my camera on because I was feeling a little unkempt. I’d had a bit of a crazy day and I just needed to sit in my armchair with my sweatpants and not worry about my wild hair. Those comments stuck with me. And led to me believing that if I’m not sitting in front of my laptop I’m not being professional. But honestly, I have some of (what I think are) my very best ideas when I’m walking and talking. In the forest, amongst the trees or walking by a river with the sound of the water flowing downstream in the background. And I also know that this is the norm for other communities of practice. Some people in other fields are encouraged to have moving meetings. They regularly have calls while walking outside, others while on a treadmill or a stationary bike inside. Why don’t we do that in the climate policy community? 



“It’s not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”



When I told my colleague all of this the other day, when I revealed that I was feeling a bit of shame, it opened up a dialogue. We shared our challenges on this front and how we might push back. We already have AI notetakers in all our meetings (I call them fairies) so why do we all have to be behind our laptops? Can’t we designate one person to facilitate, one to take basic notes (because sometimes/often we don’t have time to look at the whole fairy’s transcriptions of each meeting) and to jot down action points and then the rest can be outside, stretching their legs and getting a bit of sunlight? The answer is yes. Why don’t we? Because (and this is very much my opinion not based on any research but rather on my own gut feeling) we are afraid. In Courage Is Calling, author and stoic philosopher Ryan Holiday writes:

“At the root of most fear is what other people will think of us. It’s paralyzing. It’s skewing. It distorts the very fabric of our reality – makes us believe in such utterly insane and cowardly ways that it’s hard to even describe.” 


The irony is that everything good lies on the other side of that fear. But to get there we have to confront that fear. We must learn to care less about what others think, or perhaps just care more about ourselves and what’s best for us as a collective. At least a few of us must have the courage to speak up and call out the things that aren’t working. Holiday agrees. He writes:

“The paradox of course is that almost everything new, everything impressive, everything right was done over the loud objections of the status quo. Most of what is beloved now was looked down on at the time of its creation or adoption by people who now pretend that never happened. We often lack the ability or the willingness to see that their objections are just a hump that must be gotten over.”

It’s us who need to change, Dear Reader, if we want to make bigger change in the world. As Rumi said: 

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I’m changing myself.”

One of the many insane things we do in our work is make decisions in the middle of the night. I remember most vividly an experience that made me realize just how insane this is when, at 3 am I found myself at a ministerial meeting at the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP 25) in Madrid, sitting behind the negotiators I was supporting. In a room filled with people making important decisions that affected people’s lives. Many people’s lives. I remember looking around at all the people looking so weary, probably feeling wretched as we all tend to do at the end of a COP. The secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) somehow looked so put together though they’d probably not had a proper night’s sleep in weeks, if not months. 

Can we all just, for a moment, recognize the insanity of making decisions that literally affect humanity in the middle of the night by people who are exhausted and often also hungry and dehydrated because they don’t have time to eat or drink in who knows how long? Good decision making starts with a foundation of wellbeing. And that means getting enough rest. Our brains have limits and research has found that the maximum amount of time that humans can (typically) concentrate on something is about five hours. And yet, multilateral processes sometimes run on 24 day cycles particularly as the clock winds down. 

The biggest challenge to change is that we get used to things that are very bad for us. Ways of working become grooved into our consciousness and we are like trains on a track. We stay locked in these unhealthy patterns because at the crux of innovation, of doing something new or doing old things differently, is the courage to be disliked. As Holiday wrote above, we are afraid of what people will think of us if we do something out of the norm. If we are the nail that sticks out, we wonder if we will get pounded down as the Japanese proverb goes. This is valid for many reasons. But psychiatrist Alfred Adler who lived in the late nineteenth and early 20th century argued that to be disliked by others is freedom. This is the premise of The Courage to Be Disliked by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi. They argue that the willingness to be disliked is fundamental to fulfilling our potential as human beings. There is so much power to be found in authenticity but it takes embracing vulnerability to get there (more on that below).  

Now, I recognize that this is much easier said than done. There are reasons why we don’t want to be disliked. We’ve been programmed to survive and being part of a community is a key part of survival, at least it was for our ancestors. At one time being liked (or not) was literally life or death. And for some it might still feel that way. And certainly connection with other humans is essential to thrive. But the paradox is that we have to be willing to not be liked by everyone because another essential element of thriving in challenging unhealthy ways of doing and being. 

“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” 


William Faulkner 


The truth is that I don’t like to be disliked any more than anyone else (I don’t think). But I know the costs to my own wellbeing when I keep myself hidden and ignore my needs. And I know that in order to transform as communities, societies and ultimately as one humanity, we need to push back on the status quo. But for that to happen someone has to go first. In some societies and cultures and for some people that’s easier said than done.  I’ve always had a tendency to go against the grain. It’s not really a choice. A lot of what is business as usual has just never really worked for me. I’ve always loved creating new things and that doesn’t always go over so well in a structured environment oriented towards achieving deliverables and outcomes. So, I’ve tended to do my own thing. Because I could (this point is important). 


Along with my other privileges I have the privilege of working in a container that I started and now get to help shape. I certainly do answer to others including our funders, the membership of the Collaboration and my colleagues, but I also have freedom to decide how I work for the most part and to co-create a container that works for our team. We are fundamentally disruptors in that we tend to do a lot of things a little differently. But even so, I’ve still been conditioned to think a certain way of doing things is superior and that conditioning still influences me. I still feel that some of the ways I do things are somehow not okay. That’s how pervasive this conditioning is. 


My point is that it does take some courage for me to push back on business as usual but perhaps less for me because of how I’ve chosen to and get to work. You might not have all the privileges I have – very few do -  and I want to acknowledge that. But you do have the privilege of recognizing that many of the ways we work, the things we have become accustomed to are eroding are health and wellbeing. And you do have the right to do something about it. 

"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow."

Mary Anne Radmacher


To do that, you don’t have to be bold and brave every second of every day. As Holiday writes, we can have fleeting moments of being courageous in our lives and that is enough to make change in the world: 


“Courage is defined in the moment. In less than a moment. When we decide to step out or step up. To leap or step back. A person isn’t brave, specifically. We are brave, generally. For a few seconds. For a few seconds of embarrassing bravery, we can be great. And that is enough.”


If you’re wondering: How can I get the courage to be brave even in a moment? I highly recommend diving into the work of researcher Brené Brown. I have read all of her books and several still sit on my bookshelves (I gave others away as I’m wont to do). While writing this blog I revisited Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Everyone should read this book. Brown’s work taught me that vulnerability (which she defines as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure) is a strength, not a liability. And it helped me grow more into an authentic version of myself, a process that is still unfolding. Writing these blogs is part of that process. It is vulnerable sharing my struggles but it hurts more to keep it all locked inside. And it helps that each and every day, I hear from someone that the way I write is helping them feel less alone. 


“Life shrinks or expands, in proportion to one’s courage.” 


Anaïs Ninn 


In Daring Greatly, Brown argues that we can almost always learn something when asking ourselves three fundamental questions: 


  1. What are the messages and expectations that define our culture and how does culture influence our behaviours?
  2. How are our struggles and behaviours related to protecting ourselves?
  3. How are our behaviours, thoughts and emotions related to vulnerability and the need for a strong sense of worthiness? 


Pondering these questions can help  us untangle our social conditioning and better understand why we do what we do. A lot of it comes down to worthiness and believing that we are enough, which Brown has found in her research is critical to dearmour and take off the masks that prevent us from being vulnerable and truly authentic with each other. This is why loving ourselves is so fundamental to this process. Because we need to love ourselves to know we are enough. And when we have a sense that we are enough, then worthiness, boundaries and engagement tend to follow. This looks like:


  • Being able to say, feel and believe that I am enough
  • Setting healthy boundaries 
  • Showing up, taking risks and letting ourselves be seen


Earlier I reflected on the experience of sitting in a ministerial in the middle of the night at COP 25. After that meeting my legs didn’t carry me very far before I collapsed onto a couch. I didn’t make it to the closing plenary and even writing this I still have some shame around that: why couldn’t I be stronger? But the reality is that my body needed sleep and it wasn’t taking no for an answer any longer. That’s not the last time I worked through the night. But it is one of the last times - at least I plan for it to be. I am passionate about my work as are you, I’m sure. And that has often translated into long days. But now I see that I don’t have to work long days, live with consistently high levels of stress and ignore my physiological needs to be good at my job. On the contrary, the healthier I am, the better I am at my job. But as I’ve written above it still takes courage to choose myself every day. 


“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”


Nelson Mandela 


Now, I want to be clear, Dear Reader. I’m not suggesting you create a revolution in your workplace – although you could. What I am suggesting is that in many moments throughout the day you choose yourself. That you learn to say no. No, I can’t take on any more work. No, I can’t go to that meeting. I’m suggesting that you speak up when you need to rest. And that you learn to say yes more to yourself. That you listen to your body when it needs to hydrate, needs to be nourished, needs to go to the loo. And maybe that means excusing yourself from a meeting for a few moments to do some deep breathing (or cry) in the loo as I’ve been known to do. 

Maybe it means blocking off time for a yoga class and not taking calls during that time as one of my colleagues does. Whatever you do. Do something. Because when you do, others will thank you. And then they will follow. Believe me, I know. My blogs rarely go viral and some get very few likes – which could be seen as a public display of solidarity –  but not a day goes by that I don’t receive a message from someone often more than one someones thanking me for writing about my experiences and telling me some of the ways reading my stories is inspiring them to make changes in their own lives.  


There is a wonderful quote I first discovered thanks to the work of Brown, who cites it in her Ted Talk on shame. It’s contained within a speech entitled, “Citizen in a Republic”, delivered by former US President Theodore Roosevelt during a European tour in 1910, shortly after he left office. It’s from a very different time, but still resonates. Though note I have changed the pronouns. Because it’s 2024. It goes like this:


“It is not the critic who counts. Not the [person] who points out how the strong [person] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the [person] who is actually in the arena. Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly. Who errs. Who comes short again and again. Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds. Who knows with great enthusiasms, the great devotions. Who spends [themselves] in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of great achievement and who at worst, if [they] fail, at least fail while daring greatly… ” 


I’ll see you in the arena, Dear Reader. And while we’re there together, I challenge you to summon the courage in a few moments over the next month to voice what you need to be healthy and well and then I challenge you to do those things. Let’s dare greatly together to create a community that enables all of us to thrive. Stay tuned for next month’s blog which is on the theme of discipline to help us get there. Be well in the meantime. 


Erin Roberts is the founder and convener of the Climate Leadership Initiative. She is passionate about making change in the world and empowering young climate leaders from the Global South to do the same. She is on a journey to wellbeing this year and hopes you’ll join her in cultivating a thriving community of change makers. 

This blog was originally posted on the website of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. You can find it here. 


Further reading: 


Beck, M. (2015). Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. London: Cynosure Publishing, LLC. Find it here:


Brown, B. (2015). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. London: Penguin Books. Find it here:


Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. London: Ebury Publishing. Find it here:


Coelho, P. (1995). The Alchemist. London: HarperCollins Publishers. Find it here:


Frankl, V.E. (2014). Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. London: Ebury Publishing. Find it here:


Gilbert, E. (2016). Big Magic: How to Live a Creative Life and Let Go of Fear. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. Find it here:


Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers: The Story of Success. London: Penguin Books. Find it here:


Gladwell, M. (2014). David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. London: Penguin Books. Find it here:


Grant, A. (2023). Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. London: Ebury Publishing. Find it here:

Henricks, G. (2010). The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Your Life to the Next Level. London: HarperCollins Publishers. Find it here:


Holiday, R. (2022). Courage is Calling: Fortune Favours the Brave. London: Profile Books Ltd. Find it here:


Kishimi, I. and F. Koga (2020). The Courage to be Happy: True Contentment Is Within Your Power. London: Atlantic Books. Find it here:


Koga, F. and I. Kishimi (2019). The Courage to Be Disliked: A single book can change your life. London: Allen & Unwin. Find it here:


Sincero, J. (2016). You Are a Badass: How to Start Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. London: John Murray Press. Find it here: