English is a strange language.  Of that, there is no doubt or dispute.  The amalgamation and combination of various tongues and cultures have resulted in an ever-changing and nearly-impossible-to-codify language system that ranks among the most difficult to master.

I have been reminded of this recently when reflecting on the word: fearless.

There is a plaque in my office, created by a friend, that has this word written on the face.  She meant it as a compliment and a reminder.  She commented that she saw me as someone who fearlessly faced change, ambiguity, and challenge and created something remarkable as a result.  I am deeply humbled by this description.  I also know it was to serve as a reminder that I do my best when I bring my best, fearless self to the work at hand.  It has been my office for a while and having it there on the shelf, in the landscape of my periphery every day, is undoubtedly serving both her purposes.  I must admit, I leaves me with a bit of an imposter’s syndrome, because I know how many fears and doubts that I live with each day.  And I know I am not alone and that the word itself is part of the problem and possibly the solution.

But the word “fearless,” is often used to synonymously with fear-free.  “He ran fearlessly into the burning building to save the child,” the newspaper will report of the local hero.  “She has a fearless brush stroke,” they will sell of an artist’s boldness.  “He is fearless and just free-climbed Half Dome,” someone will remark about an athlete’s death-defying feats.  But any of these people will tell you that they have doubts.  They are not guaranteed success.  They have fears.  They are not fear-free, but rather they are overcoming their fears.  What does it truly mean to be fearless?

The answer might be hidden in the word itself.  The term “less” is a relative word.  It implies that it is less when compared to something else.  I am sure you can sting your eyes with “tearless” shampoo, but it is meant to imply a relative safety to other products on the market. We use words like seamless, matchless, baseless, careless, effortless, heartless, motionless, priceless, and thankless as if they are absolutes, but they are really descriptions of relation.  You can be seemingly tireless, but still get tired.  Tireless is what others observe, but the truth is far more nuanced.  The comparison you might make is between yourself and others or between yourself on different days and in different situations. 

In my experience, courage is not the anecdote of fear.  It is action.  Fear can be paralyzing, especially when combined with a vivid imagination, but the fearless face it down, give it a name, and move forward.  Not recklessly, but with calculated intention, identifying and mitigating risks.  To be fearless is just to strive to fear less than you did the day before and you do that with action.  Before long, you are accomplishing things never before possible.

We live in strange and scary times.  Unprecedented stress combined with new technologies bring the raw edges of humanity to the surface and the world stage.  If there was ever a time for fearlessness, the time is now.  

This article was published on LinkedIn Pulse