The UX of Life #3: What you need to know about Courage

Reuben Png
7 min readJun 7, 2020

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“Real courage is not grace under pressure. It’s doing the right thing when it’s frightening and hurts.”
— Ramsey Clark

What’s your light at the end of the tunnel? Image © Reuben Png 2020

Courage is a term that feels increasingly distant in our culture today. A concept that we read about in stories and enjoy watching on the big screen. While it is often associated with bravery and heroism, courage is more difficult to define as it can have less physicality to it.

In simplistic terms, physical bravery could be more akin to jumping in front of a bus to save a child, whereas owning up to a problem that you caused is more about courage and humility (and very much less newsworthy, common or celebrated in corporate culture). The latter is a situation that we are more likely to face on a more common basis, arguably requiring a very significant amount of courage too.

Source: Google Trends, accessed 29 May 2020. The spike in the blue line for searches related to the topic of Fear was around 15–28 March 2020, very likely associated with reactions to the current COVID-19 situation.

CORRECTION (11 June 2020): As pointed out by a friend, the Google Trends data above for the topics Fear, Stress and Courage do not directly relate to fears around the COVID situation, with many unrelated terms used (such as “The Fear of God”). I apologise for not digging deeper into this data. Please also look at the revised image below.

This is an updated Google Trends search that was performed on 11 June 2020. The related search terms and rising topics have been verified to be associated with COVID-19, of which 100% of the rising related topics were COVID-19 related. I narrowed the location down to Australia in order to filter out language translation noise for higher accuracy. I must note that this surge in searches relating to the COVID-19 hotline and domestic abuse hotline does not directly relate to fear and courage, yet we can deduce there is much fear associated in the use of these services given the context.

In place of courage, words related to stress, fear and frustration tend to dominate many conversations (and Google searches as above) today. It is somehow easier to bond with other people on negative feelings over challenges we are facing rather than celebrating success. Think about chats around the pantry at workplaces, or the banter around drinks after work. We also know that the result of prolonged fear, negativity and anxiety can take a very physical toll on our own bodies. Based on personal experience, the ongoing dynamics of stress, fear and anxiety in a workplace can be likened very much to being in an abusive relationship.

I’ve had exposure to many workplaces that promote people-pleasing, in the context of fear of failure and trying to fit in. If that’s not the case, even trying to sustain a positive environment at work by not being honest about how you truly feel can have a resultant toxic effect on team communication and psychological safety.

A Threat to Courage: Reduced Cognitive Bandwidth

The world is currently facing great uncertainty across every sector and level of society. In this season of being confined at home for the longest period of my working life, the weight and tension of raising a young family while managing a consulting business has been immense to say the least. Too often, words are short and terse, and simple brushes can trigger explosive reactions. And that’s in the context of a very loving and nurturing environment (with many hugs and apologies after). Many of our weaknesses are being surfaced under pressure, and we have yet to understand the impact and scale of what is going on behind closed doors globally. The overall personal impact on me has been a reduced cognitive bandwidth to be creative, inspired, motivated and courageous.

A simple graphic I made showing how our cognitive capacity might be exhausted during COVID-19. Family graphic by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

Reduced cognitive bandwidth is like a form of paralysis that prevents you from making strategic decisions because you lack the capacity to effectively review options or process information. This can most certainly increase frustration and impair your ability to find solutions.

An article by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warns of the surge of psychological stress that will occur as a result of the impact of COVID-19 on families, isolated individuals, elderly, vulnerable, healthcare workers and many others. There are also countless alerts by governments and agencies such as the Council on Foreign Relations that report about an alarming spike in domestic abuse globally.

Adding the search topic “emergency” to Google Trends shows a huge spike around 5–11 April 2020

UPDATE (11 June 2020): As with the first Google Trends image, do note that this data includes terms unrelated to COVID-19 such as “State of Emergency”. I apologise that this is therefore not a direct correlation that proves my point. I will be sure to do a bit more digging in future when using Google Trends data!

What about service, product and digital environments?

In our work looking at services, experiences and systems, we always start by looking at the people we are serving. In many contexts, humans are definitely still the main drivers of systems, despite how intelligent or automated the systems appear to be. Inevitably human issues and behaviour get surfaced as root causes of business problems. Turnover of staff, working in silos, or customers not returning are just some of the symptoms.

In many environments, it can be easy to hide behind data to make decisions rather than face other humans with courage and humility. Current data shows a bleak economic outlook that would demand cost-cutting measures to stop financial bleeding, yet responses like this Brooklyn landlord who waived the rent of hundreds of tenants gives us hope amidst daily torrents of bad news.

“Using data” itself is a loaded term too, because it is not uncommon to use selective perspectives of data to prove a point. In many other cases, too much noise in data prevents clear decision making. But is clarity required for courageous decision-making?

Retrospectively, using data and truth alone to confront others can have damaging effects if not delivered with empathy and tact. In a recent project relating to people and systems, I was highly excited to share with a senior leadership team our findings, which came across as rather negative. In my excitement after much time synthesising the insights — I forgot about navigating emotions and could have offended the team if not for their understanding and graciousness!

Here are 6 things you should know and consider about Courage

  1. Know what you need to be brave about. Understand your purpose and priorities so you can get clarity, the type of clarity you need when you are faced with difficult situations. On the same note, it’s not always possible to have clarity in pressure situations.
  2. If possible, don’t rush into situations, armed only with scant bits of information. Instead take a little time to breathe, and avoid assumptions by talking to people first.
  3. Get lost every once in a while, or take a break from thinking about the situation you’re facing. I find that even a mundane task like washing dishes can let my thought processes have a break sometimes, resulting in new inspiration. Our logic often leads us to exactly where we are, letting us get blindsided by our own experiences and baggage.
  4. Understand that not everyone/thing is your enemy. There are tensions or paradoxes that may appear to be at odds with each other, such as standardising and customising processes, cerebral and emotional decision-making, or balancing a digital interaction with the human touch. Difficult words from a friend can also be more beneficial than flattering words from an enemy. I believe that the way forward involves making key decisions to maintain a healthy tension between different opposing factors.
  5. Know who it is you serve, and if you are trying to serve too wide a group of users or stakeholders, it may be impossible to please everyone. Again this relates to getting clarity of purpose.
  6. Know when to walk away.

About The UX of Life

The UX of Life is a series of articles based on insights and learnings across projects that we have learned at IndegoX. It is always an intersection of people, technology, design, processes and culture. More often than not, we cannot reveal case studies due to confidentiality but we can share universal learnings that help us design better experiences along this journey.

Free upcoming online workshop — July 2020

I will be running a free online workshop in July 2020 on The UX of Life, giving an outline on how to use behavioural design principles to better approach complex situations. While this approach has helped IndegoX in our Service Design, UX Design, Technology and Transformation work, we have found that it also helps leaders, product managers and individuals to gain more clarity in many situations.

If you would like to join us for this free 2 hour workshop, please use this form to express your interest.

https://airtable.com/shrmTChZjypNTHrnz

Get inspired and be courageous!

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Reuben Png

I’m passionate about transforming culture through the use of design, technology and empathy. I also founded IndegoX, a consultancy with the same vision.