‘Existential Courage’ shows you how to overcome fears and uncertainties

When I was a kid, I loved reading guides to life. They piled up on my shelf and on my library card, their spines almost cracked with frequent use (just almost; I’m not a monster) and their pages filled with words “directly” from my favorite girlhood heroes. Mary-Kate and Ashley had a guide to life. Lizzie McGuire had a guide to life. Mia Thermopolis had a guide to life (and being a princess). Even Betty and Veronica had a guide to life, and I especially loved theirs because it was full-color and had a chapter on crushes that proved my little infatuation with Jughead Jones was valid.

I learned a lot from these books. There’s the requisite advice on school, hobbies, and growing up, but they also held knowledge that furthered my creativity and set me up for real life, like how to make my own lip gloss and which utensils to use during full-course meals.

Now that I’m older, you won’t really catch me around the Self-Help section anymore. It’s a little funny to think about, because I kind of need help more than ever. So when I was tasked to review Arriane Serafico’s new book Existential Courage and read it in one sitting, I couldn’t help but think that the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Serafico, public speaker and founder of online learning community The Purposeful Creative, has written a survival guide for every existential crisis one could ever encounter. She pulls not only from personal experience, but also from scientific research and epiphanies from over 15,000 students she has taught. As a result, Existential Courage combines essay-type passages with a sturdy framework, activities and exercises, and advice that’s well mapped out in easily digestible concepts — taking something as abstract as soul searching and navigating it towards more stable, concrete ground. It’s less a step-by-step process for micromanaging your life and more of applied theory to simplify it all.

The book operates under three main questions: 1) What the reader wants to do in life, 2) What makes them fulfilled, and 3) What they want to do next. Serafico, being a self-confessed Type A personality, creates little systems and introduces new concepts to reframe aspects of life in ways that we wouldn’t have considered otherwise, including courage personality types, the true difference between purpose and passion (and why it helps to focus on the former), the importance of journaling as a means to find what you really stand for, and what you lack when you feel stuck in a situation that might not be best for you and end up settling.

“A crisis is ageless,” Serafico writes. We overcome it, and then it pops back up again, probably in another form. So what is “existential courage,” anyway? It’s when you pick the path that embraces risk, because it’s how you grow and thrive. In the author’s words, it’s choosing to exist as the fullest, most authentic version of yourself, no matter how difficult that is. After all, she didn’t always have it all figured out; she’s had to make some tough, scary decisions herself. She got through to the other side, and now she’s sharing what she learned on the way.

At this point in my life, I’ll admit I’m at a bit of a standstill. I turned 25 in October, and it’s been looming over my head since. Should I have done more by now? Am I just permanently delayed — or worse, trapped in a time loop? Do I need to pivot and find something else to do with my life? I worry all the time about change and job security and what comes next, having developed a strange relationship with my own future where I can’t picture it beyond months at a time. The book calls it an “Existential Hamster Wheel”: you keep moving, and yet you’re still stuck in place.

 

What is “existential courage,” anyway? It’s when you pick the path that embraces risk, because it’s how you grow and thrive. It’s choosing to exist as the fullest, most authentic version of yourself, no matter how difficult that is. 

 

But reading Existential Courage helped me untangle some of these knots in my brain. I learned that a lack of certainty is nothing, really, other than infinite possibilities. It puts stock in creating meaning out of your experiences, which I love, and aims to abolish overthinking, which I absolutely detest. It reiterates that life isn’t about measuring up, and that you can do things on your own time. There’s no “one” way to measure progress; you’re free to make up your own. If you can’t find answers to the questions you have, it’s not that there are no answers — only different, better questions to ask.

Serafico writes that when your plate feels full — which it often does for me — instead of trying to find the balance, you can live with the tension and take the challenge; an act of bravery. “But I’m not brave,” you might argue. And here, she counters: There’s a framework for that. 

After every chapter, there are Wildcards carrying little fortunes and affirmations to help the reader along. One of the messages I got was: “Don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything.” It’s telling that, while opening this book, I did so in a show of shameless idealism — an idealism that I pretty much thought I could no longer afford, that I had left behind along with all the life guides I used to collect. But I think I’m relearning that maybe being impressionable and open to change isn’t so bad — and I might just engage with the world a fuller person, one existential crisis at a time.