Someone told me “You are brave!” and as you would expect of me, I replied with a “Thanks for saying that!” and carried on my day. Then, my inner voice began asking: Am I ‘really’ brave? What defines bravery? What made her say that to me? What did she mean by that statement? If I was ‘really’ brave, would I even be asking myself these questions?

Over the course of two weeks, I began to think about things that I think are brave- mostly to compare myself to something. I was eager to answer the question: Are you brave? I started by googling the words “Are you brave” and found several quizzes. The first one (a 10 question, UK based test called Psychologies: How brave and resilient are you?) revealed that I am, in fact, courageous. Based on my responses, I follow my emotions and intuition and act swiftly. The advantage to my courage (based on the test, of course) is my sincerity and spontaneity. Sounded true and even a bit scary reading about the challenges I’d faced as a result of acting impulsively- which, I guess, is a part of being brave.

I wasn’t convinced I was brave after this quiz and even though I proceeded with a few more, I still struggled with the statement because I didn’t know what it meant for me. I’ve never considered myself to be brave because I am generally afraid of heights, speed and most things ‘scary’- including the dark (I prefer to keep a light on!). Further, I’ve been told by every one of my supervisors that I tend to over-think things-which seems counter to being brave.

It is always a good idea to self-reflect and during a day of flying to a client meeting, it was an opportune time to do just that 30,000 feet above the ground- peeking out the window of seat 15F. The only way I would really be able to unpack this one was to break down who I was ‘on-ground’, so I began with my career and worked my way inward.

BRAVE EMPLOYEE: As a leader in the world of education ‘sales’, have you ever had to make tough decisions? Have you been on calls or in meetings where you are the only female and despite a massive feeling of insufficiency, you’ve shared your thoughts? Have you negotiated with someone carrying a bigger title than you? Have you pivoted your career from one functional area to another? “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder,” writes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In. I guess I’ve been all around that jungle gym- not always climbing up and it’s made me stronger as a leader- figuratively having the ability to be nimble and flex my muscles a bit. Thinking through this one was a realization that bravery was not so much about being comfortable in all those situations, but instead it was about trying new things that ARE uncomfortable. I work with someone who recently shared with me that she considered herself a natural introvert. Her work has put her in situations where she must present and socialize with many people in various situations. Since first meeting her, I had viewed her as a warm and out-going person and only until she shared with me that it was conscious effort for her to be as social as she needed to be work did I connect that she in fact was the epitome of brave.

BRAVE MOTHER: Have you ever had to kiss your children goodbye, while you head off for work- missing their games, graduations, dances and milestones large and small- because you are a working mother. Despite feeling like you are not doing enough or giving enough, you go to bed knowing they are well cared for and trust they have everything. There are many working mothers who made a commitment to BOTH their family and their work. Sometimes it is out of necessity and it’s not uncommon to hear working moms say “It takes a village” or “Do what you have to do” because like so many things in life, when forced, we simply make things work. Waking up in the morning and doing your thing is not brave. What IS brave is accepting that and appreciating what you accomplish in a day before you go to bed. That goes for mothers that take the responsibility of caring for their children all day (hardest job ever!) and also for the moms who split their energy between the home and work outside the home. The struggle is real, but when I remembered the time when I was on a business trip and got a text that our son was sick with mono, I immediately felt the stab in my heart and carried on with a meeting until it was ok to call him back 1 hour later. I guess it takes courage to leave your kids in the hands of others you trust because all will be ok. In that moment, I felt anything but brave, but today, looking down over the clouds and reclining my seat (only goes a tad back) confidence filled my heart. Yes, I am a brave mother.

BRAVE BODY: Have you ever flipped through magazines and wondered “How do they do it?” seeing women like Jennifer Lopez, Natalie Morales, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba- who seemingly do everything- including athletics. Some people are naturally fit and naturally good at sports. I’ve always admired those people, but I have never been one of them. Until I was… and here is my story. In 2010, one of my childhood friends was training for an Ironman triathlon. I had just had my second child and was feeling particularly unfit while he trained in the morning and at night when he came to visit us for a weekend from New Jersey. I decided that despite never having run a single mile in my life, I was going to register for a 5K and make it happen. I downloaded C25K on my phone and took to it religiously. I ran the race and immediately registered for several more. By the following year, I was regularly running and was ready for another goal: half marathon. My same friend promised that if I would complete the half, he would be there at mile 8 (when I’d be exhausted) to cheer me on. He did, and the confidence I gained from that made me mentally ready to conquer a bigger goal- the triathlon! I’d never owned a bike and went onto craigslist and purchased the first bike I saw for $75. I immediately began to ride it 3x per week and signed up for a membership to swim 3x per week as well. I trained for 4 months every single day and together with the support of my friend who inspired me to physically challenge myself, I achieved this goal too. The distances, times or the subsequent races over the years are meaningless really, but this mental stamina taught me how to calm myself at work, as a mother and wife how to break things into smaller tasks so I don’t overwhelm myself or others and perhaps most importantly the discipline to do things even when it doesn’t ‘feel good’. Register for a race- spontaneously, impulsively. It’s the first step to a brave body- I know.

BRAVE SELF: At the end of last year, one of my oldest, truest friends (Danny), passed away suddenly on a business trip in Vietnam. It was a crushing moment- and all of the emotions of grief beginning with disbelief and anger rushed in. I questioned if there was a god, how would he let this happen? Why would such a kind, gentle, brilliant, loving father and husband be taken from his incredible wife and girls at the age of 43? It wasn’t fair to his family, his friends, his colleagues. It wasn’t fair to the world- he had so much more to give. I don’t have the answers. I do not know if I will ever have the answers to those questions. But I could answer what brave self means when I think of this devastating time. Danny’s wife, who has become as close as a sister to me over the last 20 years, has shared her emotions while she trembles in fear each day. Naturally, she’s angry, heartbroken, sad. She did not choose this reality, but she lives it. She does not know the ‘right’ way to manage each day. Nor does she know what tomorrow looks like, but in each conversation with her, she says two words that make her brave: Thank you. Clearly, if someone can be grateful still after this, it is bravery beyond words. Each day, we learn. We can also learn to be brave. Undoubtedly, it starts with saying ‘Thank you’ more, genuinely.

Once all of this was unwrapped in my head, I realized, in fact: WE CAN ALL BE BRAVE. We are brave for consciously taking steps to come out of our comfort zones and keep going. We won’t always win, but we can always keep trying- and perhaps that is what my colleague meant by the statement that got me to work through some of my own insecurities and share with my Lead5050 sisters what it means to be brave. As my flight is about to end, I hope my words bring to other women a feeling of gratitude for what we have and that as you look out into the sky, you see yourself and all the people around you here and those that have passed supporting you and cheering you on (…at mile 8…) to be brave because you ARE brave.

Sarah Byrne