courage is calling book summary

Book Summary: Courage Is Calling by Ryan Holiday

Table of Contents

The Book in Three Sentences

In this summary of Courage Is Calling, you’ll learn lessons from history so that you can deal with fear and do what’s right. This book is the first of a series on the cardinal virtues. In this one, Ryan Holidays explores the foundational virtue of courage.

Courage Is Calling Summary

The Four Virtues

At some point in his life, Hercules had a choice. He was alone and unsure, but his journey was going to make him a god. Similarly, we face our own journey and our choices include vice or virtue. Like Hercules, we must choose excellence. Virtue has four components: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Courage Is Calling is the first of four books that’ll teach you to achieve excellence. The virtues are all interrelated and to be called virtuous, you must excel at all of them. Like the cardinal directions of a compass, they guide us to our destination. Virtue isn’t an action, but a constant choice.


We love courage, but courage is rare. Surprisingly, courage is renewable, everyone has it, and it’s unlimited. Yet it’s scarce because we’re afraid. Not doing anything is easy and safe, so we leave heroic demonstrations to someone else. To a certain extent, this is understandable and logical, but we mustn’t forget that the greatest moments in history required some form of bravery from ordinary people.

Usually, we identify two kinds of courage, physical and moral. But the truth is there’s only one. Courage demands a lot from us: risk, sacrifice, commitment, perseverance, truth, and determination. Courage is hard to define but easy to spot when it happens. We must examine courage thoroughly because that’s how we push our own limits. When we study the lives of the greatest men and women in human history, there’s always a moment of courage. Courage is calling and we must answer.

Part I: Fear

The source of cowardice is fear. Fear is the enemy of courage. To beat it, we must understand fear, study it, keep it close, and see how powerful it is. All humans suffer from fear, but what makes it remarkable is our ability to master it. To be remarkable, we must conquer fear because no one remembers, admires, or writes about the cowards.

The Call We Fear…

Florence Nightingale was courageous. When she was sixteen years old, she got the “call”, but everyone told her to do something different. An inner voice guides us in the direction we’re supposed to follow, but it’s up to us to listen to it or not. Florence was supposed to do nothing because that’s what women of means were supposed to do. But she didn’t want to be a rich debutante, she wanted to be a nurse. Her fear was strong because everyone told Nightingale that pursuing her calling was a big mistake.

She eventually accepted her calling and set up hospitals during the war in Crimea. Nightingale saw the horrors of war firsthand: death, plagues, the bitter cold, and a constant lack of food. Despite the horror, fear soon became determination. By overlooking fear, Nightingale became a hero. Her work led to the creation of the Red Cross and hospital care changed forever.

To change the world, we must do what scares us. It involves dealing with self-doubt, anxiety, limitations, and our inner demons. Listen to the call. To others, it’ll look like the wrong thing to do but don’t give in to fear. Answer the call and do what’s right.

The Important Thing Is to Not Be Afraid

The most repeated phrase in the bible is “be not afraid” and this is a common sentiment in the Odyssey, in proverbs, and in Hebrew prayers too. Giving in to fear is a disgrace. But as long as it doesn’t take over completely, being scared can be useful. It tells you that there’s danger coming and it wakes you up. So be scared, but don’t be afraid. Fear is a liability and it holds you back. While the world is a scary place, there’s no room for fear.

We Defeat Fear with Logic

Pericles was paralyzed by a storm, but he tried to make sense of the phenomenon and moved on. When facing seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, break them down using reason. Once you understand what’s going on, you’ll be able to continue your journey. Life is unpredictable and there’s a lot we don’t know. Attack fear logically.

This Is the Enemy

Being afraid of what others think of us is common. Most impressive things in history took place when someone challenged the status quo. Speak up when you have to and don’t follow trends. Don’t let fear rule you. Don’t value the opinion of the majority above your own judgment.

There Are Always More Before They Are Counted

Early in his military career, Ulysses S. Grant faced all kinds of dangers on a journey through Texas. He was low on supplies, he lost a horse, and he had seventy miles to his destination or he’d be considered absent without leave. Grant decided to continue anyway despite the countless obstacles. He heard a pack of wolves and estimated that there would be around twenty, while, in reality, there were only two. Decades later, Grant would say: “There are always more of them before they are counted.” There aren’t as many obstacles, enemies, or critics as you think. As in Grant’s story, when they see you coming towards them, the wolves will run away. On the battlefield, enemies have as much to fear you as you fear them. Your mind makes your obstacles more formidable than they are.

But What If?

Sometimes what we fear is so distant in the future that we don’t know what is. Define your fears. To this effect, Tim Ferriss uses an exercise called “fear setting” to articulate nightmares and anxieties. The idea is to name your worst-case scenarios as concretely as possible so that you’re prepared before they ever happen (and if they ever happen). As a result, this will reduce your anxiety and you’ll find certainty in things you don’t know. Failing in life happens because you were unprepared.

Don’t Be Deterred by Difficulties

Seneca knew that there were going to be difficulties. But he didn’t know everything that was going to happen. As painful as it must have been, it turn him into the person he eventually became. Things are hard, but obstacles are important. You wouldn’t be able to survive without defeat, heartbreak, and loss. This is all a test and only the courageous feel intrigued by it.

Focus on What’s in Front of You

Demosthenes was being attacked on two fronts and despite fear, he defended himself. He said to himself that fear is something we have in common, but we can’t let it consume us. So instead of thinking about all the bad things that could happen, do the best you can right now. Imagining every possible scenario makes us miserable, so do your job and ignore everything else.

Never Questions Another Man’s Courage

It’s easier to judge than it’s to know. You never know what someone else is going through. No one has mastered fear in such a way that they can look at something else and judge what they’re doing with theirs. So instead of judging others, think about what you are (or aren’t) doing with your fears right now.

Agency Is an Effective Truth

The website Gawker outed Peter Thiel as gay in 2007. As outrageous as this attitude was, Thiel accepted he had no power and no agency and this became an effective truth. The investor convinced himself that there was nothing he could do. Fear determines what you can or can’t do. What you believe then becomes the truth. This is the power of agency.

We Are Afraid to Believe

After surviving the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl talked about the “existential vacuum”. Despite all the progress after the war, no one was happy. So Frankl urged younger generations to find meaning, otherwise, his experiences in Nazi Germany had meant nothing. Some refer to these forces you can’t resist as nihilism. This attitude is safe because it means there’s nothing we can do to change the status quo. Ordinary people never risk anything so that they don’t put themselves in danger. Before adopting this strategy, don’t forget that the opposite of cowardice was apathy, discouragement, and despair. Believe in something because otherwise, you’ll be nothing.

Never Let Them Intimidate You

Helvidius Priscus was a Roman senator and the emperor Vespasian ordered him to stop going to the Senate. Heldivius still decided to go, but the emperor commanded him not to say anything. The senator refused and he received a death threat from the emperor himself. Although extreme ultimatums like this aren’t as common nowadays, threatening others is still a tactic powerful people use to intimidate others. Sadly, it works, but don’t give in and don’t flinch.

All Growth Is a Leap

When you sign a document, you make yourself vulnerable. You might succeed or you might fail, but you don’t know that when you do it. Only time will tell. This is what happened to Benjamin Rush when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Holiday calls growth a “leap in the dark” because the first couple of times you do something, it’s scary. But not doing something is worse than actually doing it and failing.

You can never win a battle you’ve never fought. There’s no certainty when you explore uncharted territory, but when something’s scary, that means there’s something to lose because otherwise, everyone would do it. Cowards wait, study the probabilities, prepare, hope, and give up before an opportunity ever arrives. The highest price you pay isn’t for the leaps you take, but for the ones you don’t. Put yourself in a position where there is fear and where there are opportunities to take such leaps.

Don’t Fear Decisions

Dean Acheson was undersecretary of state after World War II. He was part of administrations that faced some of the most difficult times in history, such as The Marshall Plan, The Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. In situations like this, cowardice is humiliation, but it also affects millions. Making decisions is scary, especially when you have many options and none of them seems obvious. Fear paralyzes us and having too many choices overwhelms us. Make a choice or someone else might make it for you and they won’t have your best interest in mind. Inaction is a choice because you’re choosing to give up agency.

You Can’t Put Your Safety First

At some point, Julius Caesar wanted to overthrow the Roman Republic. Meanwhile, his rival, Cicero, thought highly of himself, so he waited. Caesar won and Cicero congratulated him. When Cicero was assassinated, Cicero once again failed to do the right thing. Cicero was soon killed and even if he had survived, he didn’t have any credibility. He led a pathetic life because he had countless opportunities to be a hero and he wasted them. It’s easy to do nothing and wait for things to sort themselves out. Deep down though, we know that’s a mistake because fear has taken over. Fear is about self-interest rather than the common good. Don’t be worried about every danger because, at some point, you have to take a risk. By taking safe decisions all the time, we put ourselves in danger. The real danger though is being forgotten.

Fear Is Showing You Something

Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington for dinner in 1901. This was the first time a black man has been a president’s guest. Roosevelt was afraid of what others might think, but sometimes fear points towards a solution, not a problem.

The Scariest Thing to Be Is Yourself

Frank Serpico had peculiar tastes for a man working in the NYPD in the 1960s. He had long hair, liked ballet, and wore leather. But everyone is original in their own way. We mustn’t push this away because that would be choosing not to be who we are. Don’t conform out of fear. Be you because to be anything else is pure cowardice.

Life Happens in Public. Get Used to It.

Jerry Weintraub’s dream was to be an actor and he was classmates with James Caan. While Cann became a notorious actor, Weintraub was afraid of his own identity. Due to his shame, Jerry never went anywhere as an actor, so he became a producer. Both men were successful, but only one was able to stand proudly in front of the camera. Speaking publicly is one of the most common fears and we must practice often so that we can do it when it counts. We must put ourselves out there because there’s no such thing as succeeding privately.

Which Tradition Will You Choose?

The early man suffered a lot. Most of their children didn’t survive, and there were depressions, disasters, and wars, but people still kept going. We owe our life to them because their DNA is part of ours. Our ancestors were fighters and survivors. They were afraid, but we can choose which tradition to follow. When you’re afraid, look up to your ancestors because they survived long enough to start the series of events that led to you being here.

You Can’t Be Afraid to Ask

Asking for help is scary, but it also leads to growth. It leads to results or sometimes the act of asking is its own breakthrough. You can’t grow unless you ask for help, so have the courage to do so before it’s too late.

When We Rise Above

There’s a reason for fear, it’s our tendency for self-preservation. Fear makes sense, but if everyone was scared all the time, the world would be a worse place. Our call is to be brave despite our fears.

Part II: Courage

Courage is the triumph over fear. It’s the decision to take action when everyone else has resigned. Every hero faces a critical turning point where we can choose courage or fear. Which one will it be?

The Call We Answer

Charles de Gaulle saved France. When the country was overrun by German tanks, he flew to England where he met Churchill and gave an interview to the BBC. De Gaulle was a victim of a series of assassination attempts, but he lived long enough to inspire the French resistance. Four years later, de Gaulle celebrated with millions of people when Paris was liberated. De Gaulle was difficult to work with, but he was brave.

The World Wants to Know

In 1937, Varlam Shalamov was sentenced to two years of hard labor due to misfortune. He believed that the world can be divided into cowards and non-cowards. The world wants to know which one you are because no one knows what you’re capable of. The obstacles along the way are opportunities to know which kind of person you are. You don’t answer this with words but with actions and you must do it publicly.

If Not You, Then Who?

This is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself: “If not you, then who?” Something is required from you and if you don’t answer the call, who’ll take your place? Each of us is unique and that’s what makes us the right person for the right job. A person can make a difference and that person could be you.

Preparation Makes You Brave

Replace fear with competence. When you have a job to do, you do it instinctively. You overcome fear by training. When you’re familiar with something, that becomes manageable. Preparation makes you brave.

Just Start Somewhere. Just Do Something.

Daniel Ellsberg attended a peace conference, asked questions, and examined some documents. Eventually, he became a whistleblower. He took small steps which led to big steps, which led to a giant leap. Start small and see where that takes you. Small actions add up over time and lead to big results.


Charles Lindbergh had reasons not to fly across the Atlantic. The morning of the flight, he ran into logistical problems, but he decided to do it anyway. To get over your fear, just go. There will be risks ahead, but you won’t succeed if you don’t try.

Speak Truth to Power

Decimus Laberius had to perform for Julius Caesar and he used this as an opportunity for defiance. Decimus was so skillful in his mockery that Caesar couldn’t do anything. No one wants to hear the truth, but you can’t be afraid of saying it. Someone has to challenge the status quo and that person could be you.

Be the Decider

Like general George Marshall once said, we mustn’t fight the problem, we must decide it. Spending the day in deliberation is a waste of time. The ability to decide is a gift, especially when you do it with courage and clarity.

It’s Good to Be Difficult

Margaret Thatcher had a strong personality. This could be a criticism or high praise. Don’t be a coward and identify yourself with the former rather than the latter. Ignore criticism with confidence and move on. To make history, you have to be difficult, or as history books might call them iconoclasts. Due to her strong personality, Thatcher became England’s first female prime minister.

Just a Few Seconds of Courage

When Martin Luther King was arrested in 1960, Nixon could have used his influence to release him, but Kennedy did it. Kennedy won the election and he did it thanks to a decision that came down to a matter of seconds. The goal isn’t to succeed, but to try. What separates the average man from a great one is a few seconds of bravery. That’s more than enough.

Make It a Habit

At one point, Harry Burns was a normal politician in his mid-twenties. His campaign gave the vote to millions of women. Make courage a habit, so much so that it becomes second nature.

Seize the Offensive

Be on the offensive, be intimidating, and be part of the initiative. Prepare in such a way that your opponents won’t have a chance. The moment you hold the initiative, you’ll be stronger than everyone else. Pursue your goals aggressively.

Stand Your Ground

One morning, Frederick Douglass decided he had had enough and grabbed a slave breaker named Edward Covey by the throat. Back then, hitting a white man was punishable by death. After fighting for hours, Covey let Douglass go. Some things won’t go away magically, so you mustn’t tolerate abuse or injustice. The power to do that lies within all of us and not only are we helping ourselves, but future generations as well.

Courage Is Contagious

One courageous person is all you need and the rest will follow. Fear is contagious, but so is courage. You don’t have to be the best to become a role model, you have to do what’s right when it counts the most. When needed, calm spreads like a virus. Become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

You Have to Own It

Responsibility scares a lot of people. If you decide to do something, hold yourself accountable for your actions. When something happens, you can’t make up excuses. You’re supposed to own your actions, especially when you’re a leader.

You Can Always Resist

At one point during his imprisonment, Commander Jeremiah Denton was in charge of a propaganda broadcast. He spent months in a Vietnamese prison camp where he was interrogated for hours. Despite the cruel conditions of the camp and the constant threat of physical punishment, Denton defied his interrogators by sending a message in Morse code using his eyes. The message read T-O-R-T-U-R-E. Denton did the right thing under the worst conditions, he defied his captors. Fight for yourself because no one will do it for you.

Fortune Favors the Bold

One of the oldest adages is “fortune favors the brave.” To succeed in life, you must have big plans and take risks. Dare greatly and you’ll be rewarded for it.

The Courage to Commit

At some point in their lives, important historical figures were mocked and laughed at. But they believed in themselves when no one else would. Only the courageous believe because cynicism is a form of cowardice. Cynics can’t triumph, so go ahead and prove them wrong.

Love Thy Neighbor

On March 13th, 164, Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed outside her apartment complex. Although she cried for help, she was ignored. People were afraid and selfish. Everyone except Sophia Farrar, a woman in her thirties who found Kitty and tried to save her. By the time paramedics arrived, Kitty was dead. Sophia was an ordinary woman and she was never credited for her actions, but no one had to. Heroes don’t care about themselves but for the common good.

Bold Is Not Rash

Courageous people can make a difference, but while they can inspire, they can also put others in danger. To this effect, courage and moderation should go hand in hand, so don’t be a coward, and don’t be reckless. According to Holiday, courage is about “carefully considered risk”.

Agency Is Taken, Not Given

In April 2011, Peter Thiel changed his mind and decided to do something about the Gawker story that had humiliated him. While everyone’s born with agency, few use it. Fear makes you believe you have no power, so we must take control over our lives and do what’s right. In the end, a series of lawsuits bankrupted Gawker, but Thiel found agency in impossibility.

When Violence Is the Answer

Serpico was sent to another precinct after his testimony against corrupted NYPD officers took place. An officer tried to intimidate Frank Serpico with a switchblade as soon as he got there, so Serpico seized the man, pulled a gun, and responded violently. This shouldn’t have to happen, but sometimes, moments of intensity are expected. Aggression shouldn’t be the answer, but when it is, it’s the only possible solution.

To Get Up and Leave

Maria Giovanna, the mother of Serpico, emigrated to the United States from Italy on her own. She was twenty years old and she was pregnant. She went into labor and had his baby on the ship. Maria didn’t know how to speak the language, she was losing a lot of blood from giving birth, and it was winter. She lost the baby and ended up in a hospital all by herself. While she waited for her husband, she moved in with some distant relatives and worked in a factory. Serpico’s father came to America eventually and the only job he found was shining shoes. It took him a while to have his own store, but he still managed to raise three children. Immigrants were some of the most courageous people. Where you come from is ultimately unimportant, but what matters is that you’re doing something. 

Do Your Job

Horatio Nelson was in charge of signaling the start of the Battle of Trafalgar and he expected every Englishman to do his job. Courage is the thing that reminds us what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Everyone has a different duty, but whatever it means for you, do what’s right. The Battle of Trafalgar was one of the fiercest naval battles, but Nelson gave orders and made adjustments until he was shot and killed. Courage called and he answered. So should you.

You Can Beat the Odds

General Douglas MacArthur commanded troops when the North Koreans invaded the South. He was trapped in the Pusan perimeter where he planned an elaborate invasion that involved landing behind enemy lines to surprise them. Everyone discouraged the operation, but MacArthur was excited. On September 15th, 1950, the landing took place and MacArthir was victorious. Every event that takes palace is some form of a miracle in the sense that a series of specific events had to happen. Success is usually unlikely, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Do what you have to and defy the odds.

Make Them Proud

Use people from the past as examples. They can be family members, religious figures, or professional athletes. While some of them have died, their memory is alive and well. Don’t let them down.

When We Rise Above Themselves

The highest form of courage is heroism because you give everything for somebody else. Heroism demands selflessness and to a certain extent, it defies reason.

Part III: The Heroic

Heroism is risking yourself for someone or something else.

Going Beyond the Call…

Xerxes ruled the Persian empire and he had a thirst for revenge. The Greeks had offended him and he sent his troops to Greece. Little by little, he started conquering cities. A small army of Spartans tried to hold back the Persians. The three-hundred men turned into thousands and then into a million. Other than a desire to fight, they also had a good cause, they wanted their people to stay free.

Leonidas, the man commanding the Spartan army chose courage because he was fighting for his people. Leonidas achieved small victories over the next couple of days, but he gave his people one more week of freedom. The opposite of fear isn’t courage but love. Love for your people, for your country, for future generations, or for your principles. Leonidas could have died, but he chose death to free the Greeks. Selfless heroism is almost extinct because it defies logic.

The Cause Makes All

The editors of Gawker thought they were invincible. They posted another mean story, but they had to take it down. Two editors resigned and this was an act of bravery because they did it for a good cause.

The Braver Thing Is Not to Fight

Lincoln won the civil war, but he did everything he could to prevent it. Fighting without weapons is heroic because your only weapons are your soul and spirit. Avoid conflict when you can though.

You Must Go Through the Wilderness

A lot of important figures in history spend their lives in exile, fired from their companies, or imprisoned: Seneca, Epictetus, Galileo, and Steve Jobs. Regardless of who you are and what you do, you won’t always be loved or appreciated. Go into the wilderness if you have to so that you can come back stronger than ever. Don’t quit and answer the call when the phone rings. Use the wilderness as an excuse to find your path again.

The Selflessness of Love

In 1969, Captain James Stockdale was asked to shave and look presentable. He had been beaten, but his captors wanted him to look good for the cameras and say that everything was fine. Stockdale cut his own forehead and bashed a stool against his face. The torture escalated from there and Stockdale decided to take his own life. He tried to sacrifice himself for his brothers. There’s heroism in love.

Make People Bigger

Ralph Abernathy was Martin Luther King Jr.’s number two. Steven Levinson also helped King. They were role players and while most people don’t remember their names, without them, we’d live in a different world. You can be that person too.

No Time for Hesitating

When Mount Vesuvius erupted, most people ran away. Pliny the Elder was curious and he used that curiosity to rescue people who were trapped. Pliny refused to abandon anyone and he said “Fortune favors the bold”. He didn’t survive. To make a difference, you just need a few moments of courage.

We Make Our Own Luck

“Moral Luck” is finding yourself in a position where you can do the right thing. There are many opportunities to be in that position, but few answer that call. Heroes make their own luck and they don’t wait for things to just happen.

Inspire Through Fearlessness 

When General Douglas MacArthur went to Japan in August 1945, World War II had just ended and there was danger. MacArthur decided to go unarmed to show fearlessness. Everything he did, showed confidence. Heroes can’t protect themselves all the time, they make themselves vulnerable from time to time. This shows your people you’re one of them.

What Are You Willing to Pay?

Bertrand Russel was a coward because no principle (such as dignity or freedom) was more important to him than his own life. But some things are worse than death. While cowards think of themselves, heroes risk their lives for someone else.

The Big Why

It takes bravery to deviate from a comfortable path. David Brooke calls this the “second mountain”, a thing we do for love or to challenge ourselves. We have conquered the first mountain and achieved some success, but there’s more to life than money and fame, so we have to look for something else.

To Go Back to the Valley

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer disembarked in America in 1939 after escaping Nazi Germany, he couldn’t stop thinking about his homeland, so he decided to go back. While some people’s destiny involves leaving and starting over, others have to stay.

Silence Is Violence

Conspirators, whistleblowers, and truth-tellers are told to remain silent, but this goes against their nature. They simply care too much. But doing nothing and saying nothing can be a form of injustice too.

The Audacity of Hope

Someone in a “whites only” waiting room knocked John Lewis unconscious. Decades later, Lewis met his attackers. The man, named Elwin Wilson, apologized and Lewis accepted it. Don’t give up because once you do, you won’t be able to win the battle.

You Must Burn the White Flag

Refuse to surrender. Despite being tortured by his master, Epictetus was committed to his principles. Epictetus lost his leg, but his spirit remained untouched. Eventually, this unwavering commitment allowed him to survive decades of slavery. Heroes burn white flags. You’ll only lose when you give up on courage.

No One Is Unbreakable

Courage isn’t the same as being unbreakable. Courage is getting up once you’ve been broken. Stoicism can help you recover, you have to focus on what you can control. Once you recover, you must come back better than ever because the alternative is death.

Courage Is Virtue. Virtue Is Courage

Words are unimportant, what matters are our deeds. The other three virtues (temperance, justice, and wisdom) are nothing without courage. You won’t get far without courage because courage is the backbone of everything else. The point of studying courage is to put it into practice. You can’t declare courage, you must earn it. To be courageous, you must live a life of courage.

Further Reading

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