According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Courage ~ mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty
Stupid ~ given to unintelligent decisions or acts: acting in an unintelligent or careless manner
There is a thin line that separates courage and stupidity.
Often, people determine whether it was courage or stupidity based on the outcome. What I have noticed is – if the outcome is favourable, the person is called courageous; if the outcome is not favourable, they are deemed stupid. In business, when was the last time, you came across a courageous failure.
What is courage?
I had once met an Everest Climber who has summited the mountain twice. He had attempted the climb five times, failing the first three times. He told me although he did not summit; the first time was the best. Getting to the summit of Everest involves crossing several crevasses several meters wide with ladders and ropes. Also, the last 850 meters of the climb is called “The Death Zone”. The oxygen in the air is so low that you require oxygen tanks. If you do not reach the summit and climb down before your oxygen runs out, the cells in your body will start dying due to hypoxia.
He was blissfully unaware of all this when he set off to the base camp, the very first time. He could not acclimatise well on his first climb and had to be airlifted quite early. Despite having seen the danger and he went the next time because he wanted to summit Everest.
While the first time was a sheer act of stupidity, it took courage to go the second time. Because he was aware of the consequences this time. He knew how easily he could end up dead. He knew that mountain had as many dead people buried in it as most cemeteries on the planet.
Courage is when you know what the consequences could be and you still take the leap. Leaping without any idea of the consequences is stupid.
It takes a unique mindset to be willing to undertake a risk despite knowing all possible outcomes. One is prepared for the worst outcomes and hoping for the best. At times blissfully ignorant people also pull off impossible feats. That is an act of sheer stupidity where the outcome turned out to be favourable, not courage. Had they known what could happen; would they have still done it?
What is Stupidity?
Steve Jobs, when he returned to Apple in 1998 was asked by a journalist; “What do you think about what the Wall Street Journal wrote about Apple?”
He said, “You know when I and Woz started Apple we did not read the Wall Street Journal. I did not even know what the Wall Street Journal was! Had I known, I would have probably nudged Woz and told him we don’t stand a chance.”
They went about building what they loved and it served them well! But it also brought them to a place where Apple ended up with neither of them in it.
Everyone wants to be Steve Jobs but nobody wants to end up thrown out of their own company to be him. Few have the courage. I am sure even Steve jobs himself was unaware that he had the courage till he was faced with the consequence.
The thin line is the knowledge of the consequence. That line determines if the act was courageous or stupid.
I have often found myself sitting squarely on the stupid side of the divide. Truth be told, most founders take the plunge because they are stupid enough to. If they were to know all the possible consequences, they probably would never even bother starting a venture. This kind of stupidity is important as well. It allows us to do things that others would not dare to.
Or as Steve Jobs famously said – Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.