THE BLOG
05/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Harry Potter's Five Steps to Courage

The market tumbles again. New layoffs are rumored. Retail numbers are down. Businesses are closing. Housing foreclosures are up. Your project may or may not get off the ground. Global terrorists could even be reorganizing, or at least getting new cell phones that work better in caves. And if all that isn't enough, an asteroid somewhere out there may have our number on it. How in the world can we act with courage and confidence in a time so fraught with threats and rumors of impending disaster?

A few years ago, I found myself, to my great surprise, writing a book about all the life wisdom to be found in the popular Harry Potter stories. It wasn't a project I'd planned. I hadn't even read any of the Potter books until fairly late in the game. But a friend convinced me to take a look at the first book in the series, and I was instantly hooked. I quickly read them all, and did so with great enthusiasm, six times through. Before I knew it, I was speaking in Las Vegas at a big international conference held in honor of the young wizard by his fans from around the world. It was all I could do not to put on long robes and shop for a wand.

I was most amazed to find that the Harry Potter stories are not really about magic at all. They're about wisdom and virtue. It didn't take me long to discover that the famous author of the Potter stories, the former classics major J. K. Rowling, is one of the most practical philosophers of our time. She has managed to capture deep wisdom in her tremendously engaging tales, and has introduced a new generation to the importance of the classic virtues delineated long ago by such great thinkers as Plato and Aristotle. In particular, her main character shows us that without personal courage, it's impossible to prevail in a time of great challenge.

Harry displays the quality of courage in a distinctively dramatic way. When we first meet him, he is a young boy as sensitive to danger and as susceptible to fear and anxiety as any of us could be. And yet, when confronted with the worst dangers of his day, he is always able to step up and do the right thing.

I was intrigued. How does he do it? Soon, I began to see a pattern in Harry's conduct over time. He doesn't seem to realize that he's giving himself the best possible conditions for exercising courage. He just intuitively does everything that's necessary to muster the courage he needs when he needs it. The application of his pattern of action to our own real world challenges is straightforward, and even simple.

The Wizard's Recipe for Courage

The main challenge we face is great change. The economy is fundamentally reconfiguring before our eyes. It's not that we won't have one in a year, or two. But it will be changed, and will certainly be different in many basic ways. The problem is that big changes are often scary. One of the primary difficulties people have with adapting to major change, and with making needed changes in their own lives is the problem of how to have courage in the face of fear, move forward to respond to change well, and then make whatever personal adjustments need to be made. Harry's formula for courage in the face of tough challenge is exactly what we need. So please allow me to present:

Harry Potter's Five Steps

(1) Prepare for the challenge.

(2) Surround yourself with support.

(3) Engage in positive self-talk.

(4) Focus on what's at stake.

(5) Take appropriate action.

By doing these five things well, we can all position ourselves to summon the courage we need, regardless of the situation we face, and like Harry do the right thing when it needs to be done. It's no time to hide until the storms around us pass. Most of these storms will pass only because of us and how we respond. We need every bit of the courage that Rowling chose to highlight in her adventures with Harry Potter.

Let's reflect quickly on each of these things.

(1) Prepare for the challenge.

Only the prepared are likely to prevail. Harry's first step is vital. Preparation creates both competence and confidence, and both of these attributes support courageous action. They are also crucial for success in any new and difficult endeavor.

(2) Surround yourself with support.

Hardly anything worth doing in this world can be accomplished alone. The support of others is crucial. When we carefully secure the assistance of other people, we greatly raise our chances of success in any difficult situation. This is Harry's second step.

(3) Engage in positive self-talk.

In facing any major challenge, we need to engage in a process of inner cheerleading for our own efforts, an extended enterprise of self-encouragement. We can then bring whatever optimism and faith we are able to muster in that way to the people around us who may be struggling as well. Any worthwhile fight with a chance of success requires an ongoing attitude of inner resilience and positive expectation. Since dealing with almost any difficulty can involve both bursts of progress and times of diminished returns, with even periods of slogging downhill now and then, it can help to remind ourselves - and each other - of these facts and use the inevitable universality of this general pattern to bolster our confidence in the process. Harry's third step of positive self-talk can pay dividends in every phase of the effort.

(4) Focus on what's at stake.

It's easy to become distracted and lose focus during any unusually tough time. Inertial forces will block the path forward and even pull us back. We'll experience unhelpful fear and unproductive ways of thinking, if we don't keep our focus on the values that are at stake in whatever challenge we face, and on the things that have to be done in order to honor those values. This is Harry's fourth step for launching change well.

(5) Take appropriate action.

Action need not wait on feeling. Most brave people say later that they never felt especially brave, but just did what had to be done. The only way we can ever respond productively to any great challenge is by taking some form of positive action. We have to roll the boulder a little farther as often as we can until it gains some momentum of its own. Harry's fifth step of taking action is in many ways the most important one of all.

Who would have guessed that the world's most popular fictional wizard could teach us all a thing or two, or five, about courage, change, and dealing with daunting challenge? Following his lead, like his literary creator herself, we can make good things happen in our world, however improbable they might seem in times such as ours. And that is the real magic of Harry Potter.