If I was to give my 20-year-old self some simple life-changing advice, it would be the following:
- Read more
- Do more
- Fail more
When thousands of people began reading what I was writing, I got scared. Each day I looked for more ways to reassure myself that everything I did would lead to a little more success, that each step would be safe. Eventually, I got so scared of failure, so scared of 'losing it all', that I stopped risking failure altogether.
It took me a long time to figure this out, and it seems so obvious to me now, but you cannot have success without failure. Success is achieved by overcoming failure. You can't have one without the other. The more that you try to avoid the risk of failure, the more you avoid the potential for success.
Here's something else I realized: a 'success story' is just that, a story.
There's nothing special or magical or mysterious about success. It's a story. It's a recollection of a specific series of events that follows the hero's journey, a common template that stories have been following for thousands of years. It involves 1) facing a challenge, 2) choosing to accept the challenge despite the risk of failure, and 3) overcoming the challenge.
A failure is just an incomplete success story.
A failure is one of the steps on the way to success. It's a toddler falling down on her way to running, the scale not budging on the way to getting in shape, and the frustration of inadequate knowledge and experience on the way to achieving a dream.
There are so many success stories and so few stories of failure because failure is a story that we don't want to hear (and because it's only part of a bigger story—it's an incomplete success story). Failure is a painful thing that reminds us that success requires work, that it requires effort. A story about failure reminds us that our work and our effort might not get us to where we're trying to go, that getting to where we're trying to go might require more work, and more effort.
The narrative of your life's story is controlled by what you choose to focus on. Reframe your story by consistently focusing on the positive, not the negative. Focus on the potential for success, not the risk of failure. Tell yourself a different story. Is there a chance you'll fail anyway? Sure, but focus on the positive! What positive thing might come out of failing? Focus on that.
If you choose to focus on the negative, all you'll see is negative. If you choose to focus on the risk of failure, all you'll see is failure. That's how stories work. Whatever part of the story you choose to focus on becomes your reality. It becomes your story.
Remember, you don't need to have a perfect record. You only need to show up more times than you don't.
So show up. Rewrite your story.
I just watched my daughter take her first steps. So unexpected and unassuming. To her it wasn't a monumental achievement, but rather just the next step. It wasn't a climactic event that she worked up to but rather something that she 'just did' when she was ready. What monumental achievements am I already prepared for but holding myself back from 'just doing'?
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I've long maintained the position that remaining open-minded and not judging others was the best route to take in life. I've avoided forming opinions out of fear that doing so would cut me off from seeing other perspectives and therefore prevent me from gaining a new understanding of something that was otherwise alien to me. But as I've gotten older I've found that a lack of opinions greatly limits my personal growth.
If someone asked me for my thoughts on a big topic--God, religion, politics, money, sexuality, ethics--my response was always watered down so that I didn't have to take a firm stance in any direction. I might say that I feel one way or another, but I would always end it by saying that I'm still exploring and that I choose to remain open-minded.
That's not to say that I don't have a strong sense of personal ethics and moral values. I've always felt a strong sense of right and wrong, but I've never explored the why of those feelings. So when I'm presented with a situation that requires using my sense of right and wrong to judge someone else's actions, I've always taken the stance of not judging at all. Instead of deciding that someone's actions are right or wrong, I choose to tell myself that I don't fully understand where that person is coming from and therefore I cannot rightly judge their actions.
However, I'm beginning to see that I do this not to protect the other person but to protect myself. I do it because I'm afraid of what others might conclude those judgements mean about me. I'm afraid of being defined, of being put in a box and labeled as 'person who believes X'.
But the older I get the more I realize this is not only wrong but dangerously influential to those who may be watching my example. Our life is a walking billboard and the examples that we set are the messages that are broadcasted to the world. Our ethics define who we are. Choosing not to take a stance on a particular subject is taking a stance in itself, a stance that says it's OK not take a stance, that it's OK to let things slip by simply because you've chosen not to decide.
All of these thoughts on judgement and ethics came about after reading the following bit from a post written by Shawn Coyne on Steven Pressfield's blog.
The other day I overhead this conversation:
Man #1: “I ran into Frank Smith (not his real name) at the beach yesterday…”
Man #2: “Isn’t that the guy who cheated on his wife, got a DWI, and said all of those nasty things about Jill’s daughter in law?”
Man #1: “…Well…yes…but I try not to judge.”
I run into this “I don’t judge” stuff a lot and it infuriates me on many levels. But as this is a blog about what it takes to create art, I’ll just address why this “moral position” is at best hypocritical and at worst a force as undermining and dark as Resistance.
If you want to create art, you need to make judgments about human behavior and take a side. How well you convey and support your point of view is a measure of your skill.
If you don’t call people on their shit, you’re placing yourself above them, as if their actions are so inconsequential to you that they need not be considered. You’re above it all, some kind of Ayn Randian ubermensch behaving only out of self-interest. The same goes for not giving a standing ovation for great work because others remain seated. If you admire a work, let the artist know. They can use all the attaboys they can get. It’s Hell in that studio.
Despite the initially convincing argument that to “not judge” is an expression of empathy—who knows, if I faced those same circumstances maybe I’d do something like that too? —It’s not. It’s an excuse for not standing up for what’s right.
Not saying something is uncaring. Not saying something means that you do not want to put your ass on the line and take the risk that you’ll be shunned for your opinion. It has everything to do with you. Nothing to do with the other person.
I’m aware that the world is not black and white. There are shades of gray between the two poles of every value. On the spectrum of “Truth and Deceit,” telling a white lie when your cousin asks if she looks good in her bathing suit is not the same as running a billion dollar Ponzi scheme. I get it.
And yes, most of the time, keeping our big mouths shut is the right thing to do. We’re all guilty of misdemeanors and don’t need Earnest Ernies pointing out our shortcomings. And when we do confront someone about their actions, we need to do it with tact and care. That’s empathy.
But this “non-judgment, I tow the middle line” attitude is dangerous. There is no middle line. Not judging is a judgment. And it pushes people away from each other—I best not make a mistake and judge anyone or no one will like me…best to keep quiet and be agreeable—instead of bringing them together—I thought I was the only one who thought Animal House was genius…
The man I overheard who doesn’t “judge” the adulterous, alcoholic driving, rumormonger sends a message to the world that destructive actions are excusable. It is what it is… There is no right and wrong. Nonsense.
But it is his passive aggressive dressing down of the other guy for “judging” someone guilty of antisocial behavior that is even worse. It masks his cowardice as virtue. And to not judge whether something is right or wrong is the furthest thing from a virtue.
You must choose a position in this world on innumerable moral questions and stand by your judgments. Woody Allen made this point in six lines of dialogue. Ken Kesey riffed on it for an entire novel. It’s important.
If you are an aspiring artist and you wish to avoid “judgments,” you’ll find that you have nothing to say.
So even if it means risking shutting yourself off to other possibilities, choosing a position on moral questions is important. It's important because the alternative--not choosing a position--means that you're setting an example even worse than choosing the wrong position.
By not choosing to make moral judgements you're setting an example that says it's OK to not stand for what you believe, that it's OK to not believe in anything. It's not OK. As human beings we grow and evolve through what we believe, not through what we don't believe.
Equally as important to being human is the formation of new opinions and ideas, that process of discovering, learning, and then accepting that previously held beliefs may have have been wrong. But if you don't take a stand in the first place, how can you prove yourself wrong?
We all die. We all get hurt, make mistakes, and experience pain that seems impossible to overcome. Life isn’t safe, but a life spent trying to avoid all risk and discomfort is the best way to avoid living at all.
It’s true that some risks are not worth taking, but most risks will mean the difference between living a life on repeat and creating a life forged in sweat, on the steps to a breathtaking summit.
So believe in something impossible. Dream. Search for meaning in your actions. Apologize and forgive. Find harmony in moving forward. Risk. Take action. Do something worthy of your own admiration. But most of all, love, and embrace who you are.
Life is short, and it’s fragile, but it’s worth it.
It is my hope that by the end of this essay you will look to the sky and see airplanes a bit differently than you do now. It is my hope that by the end of this essay you will hear the roaring hiss of a jet engine and look up with a new sense of admiration for who you are.
I’ve watched thousands of airplanes fly over me. I’ve flown in hundreds of them. I’ve watched the earth float by beneath me, studied how these machines work their magic, how humans build their wings, and how pilots master their controls. I’ve even been lucky enough to pilot one myself.
But when I hear one going by, no matter what I’m doing, I still stop and tilt my head to the sky with a childish sense of wonder and watch this mechanical work of art float past (a rather dangerous distraction when I’m driving; I’ve lost a hat this way).
On several occasions in the past few months I’ve found myself on the beach, gazing at the birds and watching as they glide across the ocean. Seconds later I’m presented with the opportunity to observe a similar bird, this time a manmade one, its shiny metal body and heavy engines pushing itself across the sky.
How are these manmade creatures of flight different from those found in nature? They’re both built for the same task: to fly, to temporarily defeat gravity and make use of an invisible force, to float through an invisible landscape.
The natural creature is certainly the more elegant and it’s far more attune with its surroundings. While it blends into the landscape and reacts to the flowing currents of air, its clumsy mechanical counterpart pummels through with sheer force, relying solely on the most basic and most fundamental principals to stay aloft.
One creature was created by nature, the other was created by us, a creation by a creation, a new species of flying creatures designed, engineered, and built entirely by humans. We saw birds flying through the air and we wanted to experience that flow, to obtain that mobility.
For thousands of years we tried manufacturing feathers. We tried making ourselves as light as possible. We tried jumping off cliffs and making contraptions that seemed to mimic the wings in nature.
Everything failed and many lives were lost, but we continued building, testing, risking, and experimenting.
As we began to understand the invisible landscape, we learned to combine visible shapes with invisible forces. We manufactured structures from whatever materials were available and even began inventing and shaping materials that didn’t exist naturally.
Elegance wasn’t nearly as important as function. What mattered was obtaining flight. And so we took to the skies in birds made of wood and metal, eventually refining our models and smoothing our designs.
When I look to the sky now and I see an airplane flying over me, what I see is an example of what it means to be human, that innate desire we all possess to recreate the things we hold with respect and admiration, that need to prove to ourselves and to others that nothing is beyond our ability.
We create because that’s who we are. We live our lives making choices and decisions based on hopes and dreams because we believe. We believe that even the remote possibility is entirely possible, that despite all the odds, the impossible is only two steps away from possible.
To create, to turn thought into action, to push and fight and struggle against all logical reason and bring life to visions and ideas, to shape hopes and dreams into tangible moments of reality and string them together one by one, to learn how to fly when we were born to walk, that is what it means to be human.
If you could erase everything you know about yourself, who would you become?
Imagine for a moment that you could let go of everything that makes up your identity: all your fears and self-doubts, all your past mistakes and experiences, all your family and friends, even the shape of your body and face, and all those weird things you don't like about your name.
Forget about what you look like. Forget about how you normally interact with people. Forget about how people usually respond to you and how you respond and act around other people. Forget what you think. Forget what you feel. Forget all of it.
Now imagine for a moment that you can start from scratch. You can recreate yourself to become anyone you like, a person with whatever personality and whatever traits you desire.
If you've always wanted to be comfortable around other people, pretend for a moment that you suddenly gain the ability to be extremely relaxed and easygoing. Your confidence goes through the roof and you have no fear of judgement. You make friends easily and you have fun talking to strangers. When someone smiles and says hello, you not only smile and say hello back but you go out of your way to initiate a conversation because you're excited and intrigued about where it may lead and that alone feels worth more than being afraid.
If you've always wished you worried less and spent more time enjoying life and the company of those present, that you enjoyed doing things not because the timing was right but because they felt like the right thing to do, then pretend for a moment that you can suddenly embrace the joy of this moment with no doubt or hesitation, no questioning or analyzing, no reservation or delay.
If you've always wanted to speak your mind and be yourself no matter what others may think, pretend for a moment that in any given situation you will always say what's on your mind. You willingly open doors and you leave room for others to judge you because you're so confident in your own skin that it just doesn't matter. You'd rather let others know you for you — no matter what they may think — rather than let them judge you for who you're not.
If you've always wished that you didn't play it safe all the time, then pretend for a moment that in this newly created life all the characters and props that come with it will be wiped away soon and everything will start anew; it doesn't matter how risky the choice, how crazy the idea, or how absurd the potential outcome: they're all worth a shot because this is your only opportunity anyway.
Now recognize that none of this needs to be pretend.
You can start from scratch. Others who know something about you may hold onto what they know and believe, but you can let it all go.
Initiating conversations and talking to people always leads to more interesting and fun experiences.
Enjoying the company of those present and living day-to-day with a focus on what makes you happy and what opportunities lie ahead is always safer than doubting, over-analyzing, and waiting for the right moment.
Speaking your mind, leaving room for others to judge you, and not fearing the outcome of being yourself is always better than pretending to be someone you're not.
Taking chances on the things that feel right, exploring opportunities that could lead somewhere new, and believing in ideas that speak to you, is always worth any perceived risk; everything you know will turn to dust soon anyway.
Be the person you know you're supposed to be and stop pretending there are justifiable reasons to do otherwise. There is nothing worth avoiding who you are because who you are is worth more than anything you could risk.
"What if I had a clone? What if my clone wasn't complete and he needed some kind of information that would help him better understand who it means to be me?"
It was an odd thought, but I went with it anyway. I was sitting in an office, peering into the darkness that enveloped the city of Boston. The shapes of buildings were outlined with tiny lights and red, green, and white colors flowed on the streets below.
"What would I tell a clone to help him better understand me?" I began jotting down specific points that came to mind and stopped when I reached thirty-three.
"Was this me? Did this list convey the essence of what it's like to live in my head?"
Over the course of the next few days, I went back to that list and spent time pondering each point. I jotted down stories, described examples, and otherwise tried to define what each thing meant to me.
Now I'm sharing that list here with you in the hopes that you will glean something useful from it. Continue reading
"Fear of failure is a ticket to mediocrity. If you're not failing from time to time, you're not pushing yourself. And if you're not pushing yourself, you're coasting." - Eric Zorn
That quote came across my screen after having spent almost twenty minutes aimlessly passing time on Facebook. I suddenly realized that for the past few weeks I haven't been pushing myself or risking failure. I've been coasting.
Case in point: I wasn't going to publish anything on this blog today. I had already decided that my next post would be on Friday. It was easier that way. I had no idea what to write and I was relying on inspiration to strike at some point between now and then to write a great post.
On the way to the remote farmhouse where I'm staying in Ujire, India, there is a small stream that crosses the road. It's a beautiful and calm place, surrounded by dense forest with just enough opening in the canopy to let a few rays of light through.
Big and beautiful butterflies are abundant, floating high above on black and yellow wings. An endless array of birds, their exact whereabouts hidden by the thick greenery, call out and sing in an acoustic dance.
A short distance upstream, there is a pool of water that collects underneath a stone ledge, measuring about twenty feet wide by four feet tall. Feeding the pool, a small waterfall runs in, adding to the surreal beauty of the place. Continue reading