What Is Like a Muscle?

I noticed a pattern recently in things I hadn’t previously thought of as related: Courage, Creativity, and Belief. I’d like to get your thoughts on it, and see where else we can take it.

A while back I heard the quote, “Courage is like a muscle,” and I was quite taken with it. The idea is that exercising a muscle is difficult at first, but the more you use it, the more you can use it. It’s easy to be timid, to play it safe, and harder to take risks, to be visible. But the more you take those risks, the more realize you can do it, and the fears you had were either unfounded, no longer relevant, or just not that important. You become able to act despite fear, and you become able to do more, go further, and push the envelope.

So I noticed when, early last year, Reut Schwartz-Hebron posed a question about habits vs. abilities in her (now closed) KindExcellence blog and a related LinkedIn discussion. She opened with:

“We are capable of innovation but we don’t always bother to innovate. We can be empathic and kind, but we are often not.”

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we will put it into practice when the time is right, even if in retrospect we think it was the “right” or more effective thing to do.”

She went on to ask for examples of effective habits, and examples of situations in which a leader had an ability but did not apply it – and asked whether anything else was missing other than having an effective habit in place.

I commented that “a key habit is courage. Yes, it is a habit, not just a quality. Someone once said that courage is like a muscle and must be exercised regularly. This is true for anything that becomes a habit. 

In that vein, I think that often managers fail to lead due to a weakness in their courage muscle. Whether in being willing to give credit where credit is due, or to take a stand, no matter how small, courage is the habit that supports so many other actions.”

This prompted Reut to write related blog post on “Courage As A Stepping Stone for Innovation” and asked people to expand on whether they thought courage was a habit and what other such habits might be required for people to be effective innovators or change facilitators.

I was actually surprised how many people disagreed! Many did agree, but many felt that courage was not required for creativity – you just did it (creativity) or you didn’t – or that courage was not a habit – either you had it or you didn’t and it is only called out in extraordinary situations – like the soldier who carries his or her comrades to safety while under fire, or the mother who lifts a car off of her child.

But I’ll go out on a limb and stand by the idea that it is a habit that can be developed by exercising that muscle. Sometimes people who have never been courageous before do stand up and make a courageous act, large or small – just like some who has never been interested in fitness may go to a yoga class and then decide to continue in that vein.

Recently a series of tweets from Linda Naiman caught my eye. Linda writes and consults on the subject of creativity. Some of her comments included:

“Learning to be creative is akin to learning a sport. It requires practice to develop the right muscles.”


“Business leaders are adopting the principles and practices of art and design to build creative muscles in their organizations.”

Linda has also written posts highlighting the connection between risk-taking, leadership and creativity, as well as exploring the notion that creativity and innovation in organizations are often viewed as dangerous:

“Creativity is fostered in organizational cultures that value independent thinking, risk-taking, and leadership.”


“Root fears present re creativity and innovation are fears of change risk and failure.”

Then Johnny B. Truant made me sit up this week (which is not unusual) when he re-published a blog post about the importance of belief. In particular, he stated that the obstacles that we let stop us only stop us because we believe in them – or believe in our inability to overcome them. He says,

“And if you stop projecting false problems in your path – or panicking about something that might happen – then you’ll soon discover that you’ll build a sense of surety within yourself that you can learn to trust, and that will keep you on that true path.” (This is what I was talking about in my post, Suspend Disbelief.)

But here’s what really made me sit up:

Belief is like a muscle. You have to build it over time, and it all starts with telling yourself that something you fear or that appears to be in your way isn’t really there. If it is, fine. Take the hit and adjust. But I’ll bet that a bunch of times you’ll walk right through it – no harm, no foul.”

Suddenly I saw a pattern emerging:

Courage is a muscle.

Courage is required for Creativity.

Creativity is a muscle.

Creativity requires positive beliefs in our ability, or at least a suspension of disbeliefs in our inability.

Belief is a muscle.

Belief takes a certain amount of courage.


I am one of those who believes that everyone is creative, but they may need help to be courageous about it, to believe in themselves, and to develop those habits.

What else is like a muscle? Let’s see if we can find more patterns, or expand on this one.

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12 Responses to What Is Like a Muscle?

  1. Beverly Mederios July 19, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    I think that Determination is also a type of a muscle……When we are determined to start something without knowing the results, when faced with overwhelming odds that are not in our favor, but we decide to see it through…..determination becomes a muscle that works with the muscle of courage….They are separate but still connected by the end results……

  2. Susan July 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    That’s great one, Bev, and another example of how we are not one muscle but a bunch of muscles that work together. Thanks!

  3. Laura Winer July 20, 2010 at 7:54 am #

    I LOVE what you have put together here! I am going to think on it (because the brain is a muscle that must be exercised as well in order for it to not atrophy)!

  4. Susan July 20, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    Hi Laura! Can’t wait to see what you come up with while exercising your brain!

  5. Eric Strimling July 20, 2010 at 8:31 am #

    In an organization courage is rarely rewarded. The group tends to recoil and dwell on the obsticals and pitfalls. This is not irrational. It is one thing to put myself at risk, but why should I, and the institution, absorb the risk for someone else’s innovation? And so courage becomes a collective muscle as well. One that is much more difficult to develope.

  6. Susan July 20, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    Excellent point, Eric, thank you. Any thoughts/recommendations on developing that muscle?

  7. Michael Broom July 20, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Yes, I can see courage, creativity, etc. as use of self issues. If we belief that we have no choice about such things then have limited our ability with them. If, however, we are conscious of our choices to be creative or not, to be courageous or not, the results would be very interesting!

  8. Susan July 20, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks, Michael. I agree, these qualities/actions are use of self issues, and I would even venture to say that Conscious Use of Self is a muscle as well.

  9. Prasanna June 30, 2011 at 1:53 am #

    humor is also muscle

  10. Susan June 30, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    Yes, Prasanna, I had not thought of that but I think you are right. Thank you for sharing that!


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