The Courageous Step

My father and I at the start of the Marine Corps Marathon.  After he quit smoking, Bob Johnson took up running.

My father and I at the start of the Marine Corps Marathon.  After he quit smoking, Bob Johnson took up running.

Friday, January 13, 2012 started like any other day for most people.  In fact, outside of those that deal with triskaidekaphobia, it was probably just like every other day that has ever been.  For my father, Bob Johnson, however, it was a monumental day.  It was the day that he took a “Courageous Step.”  After over 50 years of smoking, he stopped.  He had tried to quit at other times in his life, but was unsuccessful. That day, my father made a commitment to himself and quit for himself.  His motivation was his, and he modified his behaviors accordingly.  True, he had the support of my mother and others in the family; but were he not to take what I call the “Courageous Step” – that first step in a direction different than he had come to know since age 12 - he may still be smoking today.

Every day I witness students developing behaviors that, in some way, will hinder their progress.  Fortunately, I don’t have reason to believe that many of my students are picking up smoking, but there are a myriad of negative habits and behaviors they are developing.  It is hard to imagine that 6th and 7th graders (10 and 11 year olds) could have already developed bad habits, but it is a reality to which any middle-school teacher or parent can attest.  As an advisor to 7th and 8th graders and as an 8th-grade Skills teacher, I needed a way to speak with my students about breaking patterns and habits.  What I have come to believe, and what I have shared with my students, is that there are three critical components in changing behaviors. The first is awareness, or consciousness.  The second is desire to change, or motivation. The third is action, or what I call the “Courageous Step.”


In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, writes at length about habit formation, transformation and how to manage both.  Duhigg says that “to overpower habit, we must recognize which craving is driving the behavior.”  That is, if individuals are not aware of what is driving their actions or inactions, they will have little chance to successfully avoid similar behaviors in the future.  This is what I refer to as awareness. 

Last year, I wrote about a student named Aidan and his success in The National History Day competition.  In that blog, I referenced the book Drive, by Daniel Pink.  Aidan’s success illustrated quite well Pink’s assertion that intrinsic motivation is a more powerful force than extrinsic motivators.  That blog post and Pink’s book are two places that detail well the second component of change, motivation.

It is the third and final component, however, that I feel trips up my students most.  That is, many of my students say that they are trying to do things like “hand work in on-time” or “goof off less in class.” Yet, they take no action to actually change their patterns.  This is especially challenging for middle-school students, because they are at a point in their lives where they are most aware of themselves and how they fit in.  By taking action, they will signal to others that they are making change.  Despite the fact that adolescence is fraught with change, most are craving acceptance of their peers and nothing threatens that quite like actively seeking change.  When working with my students, it is easy to talk about change and develop plans for improvement.  What is hard, and quite frankly takes real courage, is to take an action that moves one in a direction away from her or his current pattern.  For example, I had an advisee that struggled in Math.  He was both aware of his struggles and wanted to improve his understandings.  He would not, however, attend extra-help sessions with his teacher, despite her invitations.  To be clear, many students at BHS get extra help.  In general, the culture of the school supports the notion that seeking help is a sign of strength, rather than an acknowledgment of weakness.  He was just not willing to take the step toward change.  He would say things like “I couldn’t go to extra-help yesterday because …”, or “Okay, I will meet with my teacher next week.”  In the end, this student did not take any action.  Thus, I have let my students know that this final step, taking action, is a real act of courage.  And like the adage says about any great journey, it begins with the first step.  That first step, the “Courageous Step” is critical to habit formation and transformation.  More importantly, we can all take that “Courageous Step,” and there is no need for a ceremony, a perfect start time, or any other fanfare.  The first step in making change is the hardest step. For my Dad, Bob Johnson, he took his “Courageous Step” over six years ago, on Friday, January 13, 2012.  Be heroic – don’t wait any longer to take your “Courageous Step.”

The Author of the Post:

Rick JohnsonThe Head of School at The Beech Hill School, has worked for over 20 years in independent school education.  In addition to his work at The Beech Hill School, Rick coaches youth sports and is active in the Concord, New Hampshire community.