Cara Stein's Blog, page 7

March 18, 2011

iguana chillin' in a tree

Afraid? I think not.
Image a by raelb, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

There's a prevailing theory that fear comes from our brain stem, the lizard brain we carry from our evolutionary ancestors. Its hard wiring for fight or flight is what causes us to be so afraid all the time, even in our cushy modern lives.

On one hand, this seems as good an explanation as any. There's got to be some reason we get so adrenalized and have all these physical reactions to things, even though for most of us, our greatest danger is eating too many fries, sitting on the couch too much, and dying of heart disease.

It's certainly true that I fear a lot of stupid things. But thinking about it, the lizard brain theory isn't adding up.

I had an iguana named Peep. He had a true lizard brain, and I can tell you, he wasn't afraid of making phone calls, and he wasn't afraid of doing difficult things. I used to joke that he did my master's degree homework for me. "Can't" wasn't in his vocabulary.

Well, ok, neither were many English words, but he wasn't intimidated by anything. When he was about six inches long (including his tail), he climbed my all-metal baker's rack, clear to the top. It was tall, it was slippery with nothing to grab; he climbed it anyway, through sheer strength and determination.

Later, when I got a cat, he came out of his cage once when she was around. Here's a carnivorous creature probably five times his size, but was he intimidated? No. He walked past her, climbed up on the couch, and made himself at home. When she made moves to bat at his tempting tail, wiggling across the floor like a cat toy, he turned around and glared at her until she backed off.

If anybody tried to mess with Peep, he walloped them with his tail. End of story. He was determined, intrepid, and confident.

Clearly, it is not my lizard brain that's so afraid of all this ridiculous stuff. So what is it?

I think I've figured it out. I was talking to my awesome business coach the other day, and he said I should start making connections with some bloggers who are bigger than me. I recently got over my fear of pitching guest posts by reframing it as "submitting pieces for publication" rather than "talking to people," but here I was, back to talking to people! I felt a reflex gut reaction of fear and dread. But in that instant, I managed to slow my thoughts down long enough to see a mental picture of what I feared.

The scene was the inside of a school bus. I was in second grade. I couldn't find a seat, and the driver started pulling away from the bus stop. I was in a moving vehicle but not properly seated–that's dangerous! I was afraid I would die and started crying, and a bunch of older girls gathered around me and started laughing and making fun of me, calling me a baby.

Awesome. I don't have lizard brain, I have second grade brain.

That incident is also the reason, up until a few years ago, I never cried if I could help it, especially in front of other people. During my divorce mess, I finally lost it and started crying in church, and to my utter amazement, my nice friends rallied around and comforted me. I guess if I had thought about it, of course they wouldn't all get in a circle, point, laugh, and call me a baby. But I never thought about it.

Similarly, if I email bloggers who have more subscribers than I have, will they start laughing at me and making fun of me for trying to be cool like them?

Cara: Hi Leo. Can I be friends with you?

Leo Babauta: Ha ha ha ha! No! You're a loser! I will karate chop you! And then I'll call up all my cool blogger friends and we'll all talk about how stupid your hair looks!

Shit. Maybe I should try Chris Guillebeau.

Cara: Hi Chris. Can I be friends with you?

Chris: What?! Uh, Noo-ooo! Try not dressing like a dork and maybe you'll be unconventional enough to be worthy of doing my math homework one day. Meanwhile, as if!

Damn damn damn. (Who knew Chris was such a Valley girl?)

Cara: Hi Everett, or do you like to be called @Evbogue? Can I be friends with you?

@Evbogue: WTF? NO! You still have a tv, and you are clearly not a cyborg. You're a fat, McNugget-eating, stuff-having lameass, and I will taunt you every chance I get!

Wait a minute, wait a minute! Did you just talk to me in more than 140 characters?! Gah! (storms off in a rage)

Completely absurd, right? None of these bloggers would act that way. (Well, except maybe @Evbogue–you never know what he'll do next.)

Anyway, I know better than that. I emailed most of my heroes last week to send them advance copies of my book. A surprising number wrote back, and those who did were super encouraging and nice.

How to beat these ridiculous fears

Second grader brain can get you every time. But like most fears, knowledge is the key to combating it.

When you find yourself shrinking back from the idea of doing something, ask yourself why? Don't settle for the facile answer that usually comes first, seek out the real answer. What are you afraid will happen? Describe what you're picturing in your mind when you think of doing this.

Classic risk management techniques dictate listing the risks, with the cost of damages, probability, and cost to mitigate for each one. For things that are unlikely but catastrophic and cheap to mitigate, take action. For example, it's not that likely that your car will catch fire, but if it does, you're pretty much screwed. However, fire extinguishers cost about $25. Get one. Don't let the risk of fire keep you from driving your car.

Most of our fears are way less serious than a car fire, though. Let's see…

Talking to people.

Risk: people will laugh at me.
Cost of damage: zero money, a bit of ego.
Probability: pretty dang low, really.
Cost to mitigate: well, if you consider my usual mitigation method of hiding in my shell, way too high! But in reality, negligible.
Conclusion: talk to people.

Starting a business.

Risk: wasting a ton of time and effort, only to fail.
Cost of damage: $3000 for coaching, plus six months' living expenses if I quit my job, minus all the fun I'm having and all the awesome stuff I'm learning. So, practically nothing, in a way.
Probability: The way I'm doing it, I'd say maybe 30%? I don't think I'll fail; at worst, it will take longer than I wish.
Cost to mitigate: a few extra months at the job, a bigger savings account, or connections to get a new regular job if it doesn't work out. Bleh.
Conclusion: start a business.

The more concrete we can get with our fears and their relationship with reality, the better decisions we can make. In the end, fortune favors the bold. It's way more interesting to try something, even if it doesn't work out, than to stay on the sidelines. And that's how you learn and grow.

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Published on March 18, 2011 09:26 • 5 views

March 10, 2011

How to be Happy ebook cover

I have some super-exciting news: the ebook I've been working on since November is finally finished! Today is the big day when I get to share it with all of you.

Do you wish you could enjoy life more? Do you feel like something is missing, like there has to be more to life? At the same time, do you feel guilty for being dissatisfied when you could have it much worse?

You need to know this stuff!

The roots of unhappiness and 6 common mistakes people make when seeking happiness
The mechanics of happiness and how it really works
10 faulty assumptions that may be holding you back
How to let go of old memories, thoughts, and beliefs that stand in your way
10 tools you can use to create genuine happiness now
How to build purpose and meaning into your life (no religion necessary)
How to go from stressed out to chilled out
How to feel great and enjoy life on an everyday basis

This book will tell you how you can be truly, genuinely happy on a daily basis. I've gathered the best from academic research, books, and my own experience to create this simple yet comprehensive happiness guide, and it's yours free.

You can build the life you want and be happy. It's not a trick or a scam, it's not a bunch of silly nonsense you tell yourself and try to believe, and it's not outside your power. It's real, and it's a gift you can give yourself. Get this book and make it happen.

Option 1

Give me the book now!

Download the screen-friendly version now!

Cost: free!

Option 2

I want it all!

The book (screen-friendly version)
The print-friendly version, arranged so you can print it out, fold it in half, and bind it into a book in about 10 minutes–read anywhere or give as a gift!
The companion guide full of thought-provoking exercises to help you get a faster start on the road to happiness
Perpetual updates and more great info through the 17000 Days newsletter

Cost: free!

Can you believe this is also free? Sign up below to get it all.

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If you're already signed up for the newsletter, you should have a copy in your mailbox waiting for you.

Please share

If you enjoy the book, please pass it on. Twitter, Facebook, email, blog, carrier pigeon, whatever! Let's spread the word and help more people be happy!

Meanwhile, I somehow lost my mind and decided that just launching a book wasn't enough, so I also took a dare in attempt to conquer my fear of video and public humiliation. (Is that redundant? Probably.)

I do a little demonstration of how to bind the print version of the ebook, which I'm really psyched about. Ebooks are great, but to me, there is just something about having a paper version with pages you can turn.

The binding is super simple and would not have made such a long video if I knew what I was doing. It really does take ten minutes; the video shows almost the entire process real-time, which is a bit excessive in retrospect.

Lessons learned from my very first brush with YouTube:

Like everything else, it's not as scary as it seems before you try it.
Try out tiny snippets of video first, don't just shoot the whole thing before you lose your nerve.
If you flip the camera sideways, you're going to have to figure out how to rotate the video back later. Duh. (I did that so you could see my head when I introduce myself but also see what I'm doing.)
Don't mumble!
Seven minutes of video can take half an hour to process on a brand new computer! (This is why I didn't just start over. Overall, I spent about two hours waiting for the video to be processed by various things, between rotating and getting it into a reasonable format.)
Take a hint from cooking shows: do more prep in advance so you can skip the repetitive stuff and cover everything in far less time.

Overall, I don't think I'll be making a big transition to video posts any time soon! And I have to apologize for the horrible audio. But it was a good chance to conquer a fear and step outside the comfort zone, so I think it was worth doing.

Note: In care you're worried, I do include a one-page set of instructions with the complete package, so you don't have to watch the video to learn how to do the binding. Phew!

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Published on March 10, 2011 23:38 • 13 views

March 4, 2011

Are you stressed out? Have you been saying yes to too many things, biting off more than you can chew, juggling faster and faster, freaking out?

Or maybe you have a low-grade tension or grumpiness buzzing through your body, needing only an idiot driver or one more person making one more request to ignite into a towering flame of rage and profanity.

Yeah, I'm there. Although I love many of the things I'm doing, there are others I don't love, and too many overall. (And meetings! So many meetings! WTF, job? Why now???) Whenever something really bothers me, I look for the best advice on fixing it and then pass it on in a blog post. But in this case, who am I kidding?

We all know how to cure this, really. Exercise. Get more sleep. Eat better. Don't procrastinate, and make fewer commitments from now on.

So instead, I give you a 5-minute assignment. Listen to this video of the ocean. Watch, too, if you want.

There's a reason this is trite: it works. You may not be able to solve your problems, but you can feel a little better. Feeling better is better! So why not?

Ideally, you might sit still, watch, listen, and do absolutely nothing else. If you can do that, great! This is another form of cheater meditation, because even if your eyes are closed, you'll know when time is up because the sound will stop. The nice thing is, there will be no harsh sound like if you used a timer or alarm, just silence.

If you're too wound up for that, just let it play on the side while you fidget around or work on stuff. I've listened to it three times while writing this blog post, and it's taken me from near-meltdown to near-dreamland.

This is my gift to you, dear readers. Happy Friday.

Next Friday, get ready for an even bigger gift: my free eBook makes its debut! It's called How to be Happy (No Fairy Dust or Moonbeams Required). There will be a special bonus for newsletter subscribers, so sign up now to make sure you get it. (Psst: the newsletter is free, too, and no spam ever. Sign up below.)

Photo credit: the photo associated with this post on the main page was taken by bark on Flickr, and is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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Published on March 04, 2011 05:00 • 13 views

February 28, 2011

Dark, scary woods represent fear to some

Image by WTL photos on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

Spoiler alert: check me out on Fear, Exposed!

Fear is what keeps us from doing what we want. It keeps us paralyzed.

Why are we so afraid? For myself and probably anyone reading this, we have safe, cushy lives. Our chances of going hungry, being eaten by tigers, or falling off a cliff are vanishingly small. So are we happy? No, we get busy fearing smaller things instead. Even when the things we fear are excruciatingly tiny and ridiculous, the fear can still stop us if we let it.

Just to show you how stupid this can be, I'll give you a list of things I was afraid of as recently as last week. Laugh if you want. Then I'll tell you how I overcame them so you can try it.

Skype. (I'm serious.) I developed a "should already know this" complex about it. Then my boyfriend told me his mom, who is in her 80s, was already using it! How embarrassing would it be if I couldn't get it working?!

Now that I've tried Skype, I realize just how silly I was to be afraid of it. How did I get over it? I really wanted to talk to Lach from The Art of Audacity, and he lives in Thailand.

Sometimes, if you want something badly enough, that's all it takes, especially if the fear is small.

Talking to people. This explains some of my fear with Skype. I'm so introverted, I scored 100% introvert on Myers-Briggs.

But what am I really afraid of? Most people are nice and want to help. This is not 9th grade–nobody is going to put a thumb tack on your chair, call you names, or make fun of you just for being you.

Looking more closely, I realize that the two biggest fears I have with talking to people are that I won't know what to say and that they'll want something from me.

If the conversation peters out, there are two easy solutions: end it, or ask a question about something that interests the other person. Done.

If the other person wants something, you don't have to say yes. If you know that, you have nothing to fear here. Make "let me think about it" or "no" your default response, and remember that you are not responsible for solving all the world's problems. You're free to say yes only to the things you really want to do. Once you realize that, you're good to go.

Sometimes breaking fears down and picking apart the things behind them is all it takes.

Failing at business. As I mentioned earlier, I've joined Jonathan Mead's Six Month "Quit Your Job and Do What You Love" coaching program.

I love the idea of supporting myself with my own business: being able to set my schedule, choose my projects, and spend most of my time doing work I love. However, the business part has always seemed like black magic.

For this fear, getting help from someone who knows what he's doing has been golden. We've worked together for about a month now, and he's blown the cover off the grand mystery of how to build a successful business. He's helped me define what I have to offer people, and he's helped me see the things I need to do to make this work. He's even given me a good order to do them in. Also, he acts like of course I can do this, why not?

I think that attitude has rubbed off on me, because I'm no longer afraid I can't make it happen.

For fears that are big and nebulous like this one was, structure helps a lot, and advice and encouragement from someone who has been there is even better.

Guest posting on other people's blogs. I've heard since before I even started this blog that guest posting is the best way to get the word out about your blog. I love what I'm doing here and think it's valuable, so I want to reach as many people as I can, yet I never made a move. Why?

Trying to get a guest post on someone's blog combines many fears: talking to someone, possibly someone I don't know; not knowing everything; asking for help; possibly being rejected; and possibly lacking that elusive coolness factor.

I don't know how long I would have waited to try this if Coach Jonathan hadn't assigned me three guest post pitches in one week. I procrastinated my hardest, but when I found myself still alive the morning they were due, I knew I had to either do them, or let myself and him down. I wrote the pitches.

I discovered two amazing things. Once I finished writing the pitches and sent them to Jonathan, I caught myself wondering expectantly if the recipients had responded yet. I hadn't even sent the pitches to them.

I was terrified of contacting these people, but once I took the time to think about what ideas might be a good fit for them, I shifted from fear to eagerness.

Once I sent the pitches to the bloggers, I realized another thing: I was more afraid they'd say yes than no. (If they said yes, I had work to do, and what if it wasn't good enough?)

Suddenly I was seeing guest posting the same way as any other time I've submitted things for publication. Sometimes they get accepted, sometimes they get rejected. A rejection just means that particular idea or way of presenting it isn't what those people need at this moment. Try the same people with a different idea, and send the same idea to other people. That's it.

Once you realize that's the worst that can happen, there truly is no peril here. For irrational fears, defining the worst case scenario often dissipates the fear by making its foolishness obvious.

Modern web technology. I've known the web since its early days. Back then, I was on top of all the hot stuff. But I ended up doing other things, and 2011 found me knowing nothing about PHP, CSS, Ruby, e-commerce, Drupal, Joomla, et al.

I hate admitting I don't know stuff. The fear really boils down to inadequacy. Web stuff used to be my thing, plus I'm a PhD, so I think I should know everything.

A comment on this blog broke the impasse. I mentioned this fear before, and one of my friends wrote that I don't have to catch up on everything that's happened in the last 15 years, just learn the current stuff!

Whoa! Clearly, it's true. It took me a while to act on it, but now, when I want to know how to do something, I pick up a book and start playing with it. Oh right, it's just programming–I can do that.

Sometimes, redefining the scope is what it takes. We don't have to know everything, and once we learn a little, the whole thing loses the scary mystique of the unknown.

My project ending at work. I've had my ups and downs with my job, but overall, it's treated me well, let's not forget the money! On top of that, I've enjoyed the project I've been working on for the past year.

That project is ending, so I'm nervous that I'll be laid off. What if I can't find another job?

The budget where I work seems to be all right, though, and I've been doing a good job. That leaves worrying about being stuck on an awful new project. Even if it's a great project, it will be different, and that alone is scary!

For this one, I just had to wait it out. I got one new project, and although it involves a crapload of meetings and teleconferences (hate!), it seems to be pretty good work. In fact, I'm learning JSP, AJAX, Eclipse, Subversion, and two graph-drawing libraries, none of which I've used before.

Normally, all that would scare the pants off me, but I've decided to adopt a growth mindset and be excited to learn all this new stuff. I've complained that my skills are out of date–here's my chance to catch up on several things, and they're going to pay me to do it!

Sometimes, a change in attitude is what it takes to turn a fear into an opportunity.

Succeeding at business but going broke personally. Say the coaching works, and I achieve my dream of supporting myself and quit my job. Woohoo!

But, that makes me a self-employed person, and everybody knows their finances are a mess! It's all ups and downs. What if I can't make ends meet?

Luckily, I stumbled across a book about this, and it spelled out exactly what to do to make sure you have enough money to cover emergencies, pay your taxes, stay out of debt, and save for things like retirement, a new car, or a trip to Tahiti.

There's no need to have screwed up finances just because you work for yourself. If you get paid irregularly, use percentages instead of fixed dollar amounts per month. Each time you get paid, whether it's $50 or $5000, immediately move appropriate percentages for taxes, retirement, and your emergency fund into special accounts for those things. If you're saving for other big things, set up an account and a percentage for each one. If you have more than a month's expenses left over, put it in a holding account so you won't spend it all. Then it will be there for the next lean month.

That's it! It's simple arithmetic. Obviously, if you don't have enough money coming in month after month, you need to do something about that, but otherwise, there's no reason a self-employed person should have worse finances than anyone else.

In this case, identifying my faulty assumption and looking at the facts were enough to dispel the fear.

The good news, and the bad news, is we're statistically more likely to die from sitting on our asses and eating too many french fries than of doing anything.

It's easy to look at these fears and think "well, duh, those are nothing to be afraid of," but almost everything we fear is like that. Shed a little light on it, start defining it and breaking it down, learn what's really going on and what you need to know, and the fear often evaporates. It's amazing.

If you want to feel a lot of this quickly, do a lot of interesting new challenges in a short time. The effect builds on itself, and it feels great.

Oh yeah, and about guest posting? I would have thought the one thing scarier than writing a guest post would be writing a guest post about my fears and weaknesses, especially on the blog of one of my major, super-successful heroes, but guess what? I did! It was surprisingly easy. Check it out–I think you'll like it.

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Published on February 28, 2011 07:34 • 5 views

February 18, 2011

A man doing nothing

Image by SaZeOd on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I have a love/hate relationship with minimalism.

I think some people get a little carried away with minimalism–really, why should I care how many t-shirts you have and what colors and neck styles they are? And why does all the underwear count as only one thing, and furniture and kitchen tools don't count at all, but pairs of shoes all count separately?

Does it really make sense to pare down to only one notebook and pen (or none!) if you write for a living, just so you can meet the magic

I've contemplated introducing my own arbitrary counting scheme. (Car, other car, house, contents of house: 4 things. Eat my dust, 100-thingers!)

But I think minimalism overall has a lot to offer if you don't get silly about it. Not wasting your money on buying things to feel better? Having few enough things that your house is peaceful and orderly? Consuming consciously? I can definitely get behind all that.

Over on Becoming Minimalist, I read a guest post by Courtney Carver about the Land of Enough. I think this is an expression of the best minimalism has to offer. Her premise is that, instead of thinking of ourselves as living in the land of plenty, we should think of ourselves as living in the Land of Enough. Instead of striving for more, more, more, we should find out what we really need and become content with that.

The Land of Enough boils down to a peaceful, satisfying existence.

In the Land of Enough, there are no credit card bills or retail therapy. When you're happy, you don't need to spend all that money, and not having the debt eliminates tons of stress.

In the Land of Enough, there is no rushing around, processed food, or clutter. Instead of watching tv or going to shows, people entertain themselves by reading, conversing, or doing things.

It sounds like a utopian dream world in a way. To me, that's the number one thing missing from conventional life in our society. It's gotten significantly worse in recent years as connection to the internet has become more and more pervasive in our lives. Now, even if you're just waiting for the elevator, you can Google something on your smart phone. It's great that we have access to more information than ever in the history of the world, and I love that the gatekeepers are becoming obsolete, but I think we're about to lose something really important if we're not careful: the ability to be. Not be entertained, not be important, not be productive, just be.

A few years ago, when I was freaking out and heading for a meltdown, I was directed to take half an hour every evening and just sit on the couch and do nothing. Don't watch tv, don't grade papers, don't make lists, don't do anything.

"What?!" I thought. "How the hell am I going to do that? How will I sit still with all this work hanging over my head? If I manage to sit still, how will I stay awake? That won't work at all!"

If you like the idea of a more peaceful life but feel the same way about doing nothing, let me tell you how I did it.

I cheated. As soon as I sat down, my cat jumped in my lap, and I stared into space and petted her. What do you know, it is possible to do nothing for half an hour! In fact, it's pretty easy with a cat's help, and quite addictive. And if you fall asleep, who cares? Nobody is going to show up and give you an F in contemplation. You probably needed the rest.

If you can't handle half an hour, start with five minutes. Or, start by taking walks with no electronics or companions to build up your spacing out muscles, then work on stationary nothing-doing.

I still think starting a to-quit list and eliminating as much scheduling and obligation as you can is the best thing to do, but that takes time and needs to be customized for your life. I aim to have no more than two things per week happening at specific times; such a schedule would be completely impossible for someone with meetings and kids in activities. Even for me, I'm suddenly on a new project at work with a standing teleconference at noon every Tuesday, and it's really harshing my mellow, but there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it while I'm on this project, so here I am: scheduled at noon on Tuesdays.

No matter what kind of life you have and how tightly scheduled it is, taking the time to space out is something you can do for yourself if it's important to you. I highly recommend it.

I think a lot of people get caught up in the vicious cycle of buying stuff, eating whatever they can find fast, and rushing around–it's hard to escape. It's the default mode in our society. If you don't do those things, you're weird. I know: pretty much everyone at my office thinks I'm weird.

But then again, taking charge of your life, sculpting it into what you want, and being happy are also outliers in our society. Given the alternative, I'll happily be weird every day and twice on Sundays. Anyone want to join me?

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Published on February 18, 2011 09:28 • 4 views

February 9, 2011

Skipping work to walk on my favorite mountain

Hey, Cameron. You realize if we played by the rules right now we'd be in gym? --Ferris Bueller

Sometimes I feel like life is getting away from me and I'm running to catch up, but it's a train and I'm an out-of-shape cubicle-dweller, and this isn't a movie. I don't even have a horse, let alone dramatic effect to make sure I barely make it so the exciting scene can happen where I leap from car to car until I get to the front and punch out the engineer. There's just no way my slow little desk-sitting legs are catching up with this train.

Do you ever feel that way?

Well, today is my birthday, and I decided to quit chasing the train and play hooky instead.

I highly recommend doing this occasionally. Think about Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Why was that movie so epic? Because he got it exactly right! "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

And then he did something about it! He gathered his two closest friends and took them on an epic adventure. They went to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Sears Tower, had lunch at one of the finest restaurants in Chicago, joined the Von Steuben Day Parade. They drove Cameron's dad's 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California.

Thinking about how I would most like to seize this day, it's not the Sears Tower or the Ferrari (or even my Miata). It's a long walk in the woods, a lot of time alone, and an art project. I've been wanting to make a collage/watercolor mess for weeks.

I believe some intense chocolate cake is also in order.

What about you? If you could do anything in the world today, what do you want most of all to do? If you knew the world was ending tomorrow, what would you do today? It may not be practical to do that stuff every day, but it's a waste not to do it at all. Can you take today off to do it? If not, what about tomorrow?

Update on the ebook: I meant to release it today, but I decided to change direction a little bit, so I'm reworking it. It will be ready soon. Meanwhile, why not subscribe to make sure you don't miss it? It's free free free!

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Published on February 09, 2011 09:38 • 10 views

February 2, 2011

Skydiving: conquering fear, or just really damn scary?

Image by dave.scriven, on Flickr
Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

If you read the same blogs I read, you've heard a lot lately about jumping out of planes, taking the leap, jumping out of planes, kicking fear's ass, and oh yeah, jumping out of planes. We're exhorted to get out there and do our thing, now now now!

I think that advice has a lot going for it.

I went through a time when I was afraid of everything, and I noticed it was getting worse and worse. It's one thing to be afraid of falling off a ladder (but climbing up there and painting anyway). It's quite another to be afraid of driving at speed on a bridge or calling to order a pizza. I went through one of those tunnel car washes where it's all enclosed (read: dark) and the car is pulled through automatically, and I totally flipped my shit because the car was moving and I couldn't see. Complete and utter claustrophobic manic panic freakout meltdown.

Things were clearly getting out of hand, and I was afraid I'd soon be too afraid to leave my house. Yes, when you're not only afraid of real things but also meta-afraid of imaginary fears that you don't even have yet, it's past time to do something. Let's face it, when you're afraid of car washes, it's past time to do something.

So I started doing scary stuff. Most notably, I tried autocross.

If you're not familiar with autocross, it's a precision driving sport where someone uses orange cones to set up a course and then everyone tries to drive it as fast as possible. Everything is set up with safety in mind: the cars are timed so that they're never near each other on the course, there are rules about the course layout to minimize the risk of wrecking into anything other than an orange cone, and workers are stationed throughout the course to watch for hazards and flag down the driver if anything goes wrong. But you definitely experience some Gs if you ride with someone good.

The first time I went, I rode with a dude named Robby, who also happens to be my electrician. I had walked the course with people explaining things to me, but that doesn't really give you a sense of how it will feel in a car.

Nothing can recreate the sensation of being in the car for real, but here's a video of a guy I know, Alan McCrispin, driving a different course:

In particular, notice the cross-shaped display with the red circles—that shows you the transfer of weight in the car as he speeds up, slows down, and turns.

On my first autocross day, it ended up being a tight competition between Alan and Robby for fastest time of the day, but I was obliviously still thinking of them as my home inspector and my electrician. In short, I had no idea what I was in for.

Robby and I got in his car. He made sure I was buckled in, then turned the rear view mirror up to the ceiling and said with a gleam in his eye, "what's behind us doesn't matter."

From our spot in the waiting area to the starting line (this area is strictly walking speed only), he suddenly hit the gas, then slammed on the brakes, seemingly inches from the car in front of us. "Holy crap, this dude is crazy! He almost got us killed!" I thought. "Just warmin' up the brakes," he said with a smile.

There were a few seconds' anticipation at the starting line until it was our time to go. Then we entered the course.

It started with a hard left, a hard right, a hard left, then a slalom, 180, back through the slalom. Then a fast part, like two quick lane changes on a highway. That was just the first third of the course (which is all I still have memorized a year and a half later), but it involved more stopping, starting, flying, moving, and changing directions than I could believe. I clung to my seat in sheer terror, fully expecting that at any second we would wreck, I would die, I would pee my pants, I would throw up, or the car would fly apart into a thousand pieces from the forces. Or all of the above. To make things worse, Robby mis-drove some of the course, so I was convinced he had absolutely no idea what he was doing, reinforcing my conviction that certain doom was upon me.

And then we were through the finish line, he slowed to a walking pace, and we returned to the holding area with absolutely no damage done to anything.

It took me a few minutes to process that. Scary-ass shit? Check. Total insanity, defying all of my notions of what was possible? Check.

Totally fine afterwards? Amazingly, check.

I ended up riding with Robby for all five runs that day. The second time, I was still scared but not to the point where I feared losing control of bodily functions. By the third time, it was all yeehaw, hell yeah, let's do that again!

I also drove the course five times myself, but that was not nearly as scary, because I drove very slowly. Not on purpose—it felt like I was going fast—but slow it was. (Robby's best time? 73.224 seconds. My best? 112.853.) It would be some time before I was driving anywhere close to the edge of my abilities or my car's, but I got there eventually. (Still lots of room for improvement.)

Meanwhile, riding with Robby launched me out of my comfort zone and into a whole new worldview about what was scary. Needless to say, the bridge and the pizza guy are problems no more. I guess I should go back to the car wash, just to check it off the list, but I doubt it would be any big deal.

All of this is to say that I believe in conquering fear by leaping out of the comfort zone and doing scary shit. It worked wonders for me.

So the other day, when I was presented with an opposing view, it stopped me in my tracks.

I can't even tell you how many eager beaver coaches I meet at business events who can't wait to meet people just like you, so they can drag you kicking and screaming from your comfort zone. They think they're doing you a favor. They're not.

They're not doing it out of meanness, of course. They sincerely want to help. They think that if you can leave the place where you're comfortable and try this new, scary thing, you'll get over it already. The problem is that sometimes what you need in order to grow is more comfort. And this kind of work needs to happen where you feel safe; where you're most comfortable.

That's why there's a zone for it.

In the future your grandchildren will look back on this age of insisting on people leaving their comfort zones with shock, horror and a sad shake of the head. The way we do now when we think about things like electric shock therapy and lobotomies. The atrocities of good intentions.

"Give me back my comfort zone" by Havi Brooks, which I discovered through "In concert with fear" by Kelly Diels.

The post quoted above tells the story of a woman who jumped out of an airplane to conquer her fears. It's a story a lot like mine, with one huge difference: her jump was terrifying and traumatic and ended up being just one more awful experience she was trying to recover from.

Dang, that does sound barbaric and cruel, doesn't it? The point of the post is that we can all stop being so hard on ourselves and instead be nurturing. Allow yourself to be comfortable and stay where you feel safe, have patience with yourself, and be nice to yourself. As you heal and recover from your past traumas and grow within your comfort zone, the number of things you're willing to try will naturally grow and your comfort zone will expand accordingly. You don't have to make yourself jump out of airplanes. In fact, in this view, it's counter-productive.

Instead, she recommends acknowledging your fear when it shows up. It will always be there, and it has things to teach you. Rather than confronting it, stop fighting. Find out what it wants and is trying to tell you.

Fear does have useful information to impart to us. It's there to protect us, after all. Fear tells us what could hurt us. It's a warning. Sometimes it gets a little carried away (carwashophobia?), but overall, it's on our side.

So, what to make of these conflicting perspectives? I can see value in each. I think it's really important to be gentle with yourself, but I also know the scary day at autocross got me way less fearful, fast. I guess the nurturing approach might have gotten me to the same place eventually, but it seems like it would have taken a long time, and meanwhile, my fears were snowballing.

I guess it's just not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I still think even people taking the nurturing approach would benefit from doing very tiny scary things (call and order that pizza!). And I suspect all of us could do with a little more nurturing. Surely even plane-jumpers can benefit from taking it easy on themselves once in a while.

Being easy but not too easy—accepting myself as I am but not letting myself get away with not growing–is one of the baffling balancing acts of trying to be my best self. I hope it gets easier with practice.

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Published on February 02, 2011 08:49 • 15 views

January 29, 2011

Roller derby girl: ain't nobody getting in her way!

Image by Joe Rollerfan on Flickr,
licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

You want to do something, but… you put it off, you think about all the things that could go wrong, maybe you talk yourself out of trying at all. If you would just get out of your own way, imagine what you could accomplish! Here are ten tips to help.

Identify your motivation

Why are you trying to get yourself to do this in the first place? Is it something you want to do? Is it something you think is important? What will you gain if you do it?

If you have no compelling answers to these questions, quit trying to make yourself do it and spend your energy on something you value instead.

Be alert to any "have to"s in your answers. The fact is, if you're an adult living in a free society, nobody can make you do anything. For instance, you don't "have to" go to work, you go because you need money to pay for your housing and food. You could instead find some other way to pay for those things, and/or reduce the amount you spend on them. It may not seem like much of a choice, but it is a choice.

If you're trying to make yourself do something because the consequences will be too bad if you don't, acknowledge that you don't like it but have good reasons for making this choice. Then do it. Meanwhile, be on the lookout for other ways to solve this problem as soon as you can.

Reasons with "should" in them are also bogus. A "should" is always a statement opposed to reality. (If something is, you don't say "should.") "Should"s against other people are usually judgements; "should"s against yourself are usually motivated by guilt or fear. Neither is a good reason to do something.

On the other hand, if the thing you're trying to accomplish is something you enjoy, matches up with your values, or gets you something you want or need, those are good reasons. When you have good reasons for doing something, think about them often—visualize them if possible—and use them to motivate yourself.

Own your fear

Better yet, pwn it. Everybody is afraid of failing, wasting effort, looking foolish. What sets apart people who do great things is not a lack of fear. They're afraid, just like everyone else. The difference is they do it anyway.

The worst thing about fear is the more you give in to it, the stronger it grows. Pretty soon, instead of being afraid of jumping out of airplanes or driving really fast on mountain roads, you're afraid of applying for jobs or choosing the wrong kind of toothpaste.

Fuck that! Take action. Whenever you encounter something you're afraid of, especially if it's something very small, take the opportunity to do it. Now the score is 1 for you, 0 for fear. Keep doing that, and you'll keep getting stronger and braver. The more you see yourself defeating your fears, the less power they have over you.

Change your mindset

Aside from generalized fear, fear of failure is one of the biggest obstacles to doing something, especially something big. It's time to rethink that. If you try to do something and it doesn't turn out as planned, use the experience to learn and grow. Many of the worst setbacks turn out to be the keys to later success.

One example of this is Steve Jobs getting fired from Apple. He co-founded the company—how devastating to get fired from it! But instead of taking his toys and going home, he started NeXT and Pixar, and used the process of starting from scratch to innovate and develop new ideas. Those ideas were instrumental in his later success.1

Another of my favorite examples is the adhesive that makes Post-It Notes work. The scientist was trying to create a super-sticky permanent adhesive, and he came up with this low-tack removable stuff–what a complete failure! …until someone else saw a good use for it and turned it into a huge success.2

You can't do anything great without screwing up a few times. When you make a mistake or things don't turn out as you plan, don't see it as a failure, see it as a learning experience and use it to build your successes.

Expect more from yourself (but not perfection)

If your expectations of yourself are too low—if you believe you can't do much of anything—you'll never get very far. On the other hand, if you always expect perfection from yourself, you paralyze yourself. The only way to avoid making mistakes is to avoid doing anything, which results in a pretty lame existence. (What a mistake that would be!)

Instead of expecting very little of yourself, or perfection, challenge yourself to do a little more, be a little more interesting, learn something new, try different things.

Don't guarantee failure

A lot of people get things backwards when they think about worst case scenarios. I don't want to try out for the tennis team—what if I don't make it? I don't want to write a book—what if nobody is willing to publish it? I don't want to go back to school—it will take four years to finish, and I'll be so old by then!

Guess what? If you don't try out, you definitely won't make the team. If you don't write the book and shop it around, it definitely won't get published. And whether you go back to school or not, you'll still be just as old in four years. By not trying, you guarantee exactly what you fear.

On the other hand, if you try, you may get what you want on the first try, or you may have to keep trying and get it later. It's not a guarantee that you'll get it. Maybe it's 50/50 or 1 in 3? Think about it this way: even if you have a 1 in 100 chance of success if you try, that's still a whole lot better than the 0 in 100 chance you have if you don't!

Don't censor, redirect

Creativity, freedom, and inner peace come from being in harmony with yourself and reality. Use your emotions to help alert you to things that aren't going well, and figure out solutions to those problems. Don't fight your emotions or deny them.

Similarly, don't fight your thoughts or deny them, either. Don't censor yourself or refuse to face the truths of your life. Let your thoughts flow freely—don't be afraid of them.

However, not all thoughts are helpful to dwell on. If you don't like a thought, dispute it or reframe it. For example, if I think "I don't know how to run a business! I don't think I can make this work!" it's important not to fight that or disparage it, because it is true, as far as it goes. But I can still change the overall feeling by adding an equally true statement: "I probably couldn't do it alone, but I've hired someone with the expertise I need to give me advice, and I'm working to make it happen." Ahh, much better.

Stay away from energy-suckers

Some people, situations, and tasks seem to suck up way more energy than others. Minimize the time you spend with them. Especially, avoid the doubters, the complainers, and anybody who tells you everything's going to be a disaster or you can't do it. You have enough doubts of your own–you don't need other people donating theirs to the collection.

Commit (or don't)

Life is short and our resources are limited. There isn't enough time to do everything, so you have to decide: are you going to do this, or not? Look at the reasons, think about what's involved, and make a decision. Then stick with it. Don't waste energy rethinking whether this is too hard or maybe you should be doing something else instead. Decide, then act accordingly.

In tough situations, a lot of people ask themselves what their heroes would do. That's a good place to start, but the most important thing to know is "what would I do?" Given your values, beliefs, tastes, needs, and desires, what is the best decision you can make? Think it through and decide with confidence. You can't be certain of the outcome (nobody can predict the future), but you've made the best decision possible. That's the great thing about thinking things out well in the first place: you don't have to go back and rethink them or second-guess yourself. Once the decision is made, don't second-guess, worry, or doubt; know that you've already thought it through. Go with it.

Make schedules, not excuses

Deciding to do something and committing to it is the first step, but unless you take action, nothing will happen. If you find yourself putting it off or not getting to it, put it on your schedule. When the designated time arrives, do it!

If you've put something off because it seems too hard or too scary, start by breaking it down into smaller pieces and doing an easy one right away. This is a good way to break the intimidation factor of trying to do something new or big.

One way I trick myself into working on something is to tell myself I'll just do one tiny step, or I'll just work on it for five minutes while I'm waiting for something else to happen. Nine times out of ten, I get absorbed in what I'm doing and don't want to stop.

Take your dreams seriously

This goes back to commitment. Once you've decided you care about something enough to do it, treat it as something important in your life. Sometimes it seems like the closer something is to our essential selves, the more readily we allow it to be pushed aside. That's not cool. If something is important to you, that's enough to make it important!

Don't call your dreams "my silly little…" or "oh, that's just my…" Don't say "I hope someday…" Whatever you're doing, even when you're just starting out, is real and worthy of respect.

I think a lot of people, myself included, are afraid of coming across as arrogant or foolish if we say things like "I'm a writer, and I'm going to support myself doing work I love!" or "I'm writing now, so I'm not available to answer the phone or do anything else," instead of "I have a little blog, and I'm trying to do this thing, but I don't really know what I'm doing…" or "[This was meant to be my writing time, but] sure, I'll run an errand for you."

Maybe it's shyness or excessive humility, or maybe it's some old superstition: don't brag or you'll draw the evil spirits' attention. Whatever it is, it needs to go! Your dreams and your beloved pursuits are some of your best stuff. Make them a priority, nurture them, and invest in them. Don't discount them or push them aside. Live them and fulfill them!

Caution: one of these pages may pop up an ad window. So rude! Just so you know, this is not my ad. Aside from the occasional affiliate link, 17000 Days is ad-free.

1 Video of Steve Jobs giving a totally awesome commencement speech at Stanford: (Thanks again, Lucas!)

2 Time-Life Books. Library of Curious and Unusual Facts: Inventive Genius. Time-Life Education, Virginia, 1991, p. 73. Cited on

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Published on January 29, 2011 19:55 • 8 views

January 21, 2011

Should I quit? Graffiti says,

Image by dev null, on Flickr

Do you ever wish you could see into the future and know how things will turn out, so you can stop throwing energy at things that aren't going to amount to anything? Should I start a blog, or will it just end up on the electronic junk pile? Should I keep trying to build my yarn-dyeing business, or is it a dead-end proposition? Should I stick with my job, or quit and find a new one? And then, of course, is my career going to get better, or should I find a new one of those? Should I stay or should I go?

Most things are fun when you first start them. There's the excitement and novelty of trying something new, the exhilaration of growth and learning a lot in a short time, and the dramatic progress of going from zero knowledge and skill to some knowledge and skill. But what happens after that?

Once the initial rush wears off, things level out. The novelty wears off, progress is less dramatic, and suddenly, it starts seeming like an effort.

At that point, I often quit. I'm kind of a serial monogamist, with guys as well as activities. There's the initial crush phase where everything is skyrockets and bliss, and nothing else even seems interesting. Then things settle into a pretty happy, more reasonable routine. Then things get difficult (familiarity starts to breed contempt, bad habits accumulate to the point of annoyance, there's a worldwide spike in the price of merino wool, etc.), and I quit.

I get a lot of teasing about this from some of my friends, and deservedly so. I always think I'll love someone or something "forever," but it always turns out to be more like 3 years. Houses, jobs, romantic relationships–each starts out appearing to be the grand answer and something I'll love forever. Then, three years later, I'm gone. The one exception is my car, which I've owned for almost 13 years. (What can I say, it's a Honda.)

Quitting: the opposing theories

We've all heard a million times: don't quit. You can't succeed if you quit.

A quitter never wins and a winner never quits.

– Napoleon Hill1 Vince Lombardi3

Most people who succeed in the face of seemingly impossible conditions are people who simply don't know how to quit.

– Robert Schuller1

Most people give up just when they're about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touch down.

–Ross Perot 1

I think the Ross Perot quote sums up the worst fear about quitting: what if I quit right when I was about to succeed?

But then again, there's the opposing view.

Quit while you're ahead. All the best gamblers do.

–Baltasar Gracian2

Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.

–Chinese Proverb2

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no use being a damn fool about it.

–W. C. Fields1

Ok, so maybe the last one is tongue in cheek, but doesn't it spell out what we're really afraid of if we don't quit: what if I'm wasting time and energy by foolishly pursuing a dead end?

When to quit

I've seen a lot of advice lately that says that if you keep doing a little bit every day toward your goal, you will eventually get there. But let's face it, some things just never get anywhere. It seems obvious that if an effort is never going to amount to anything and you're not enjoying it any more, it's time to quit. But how can you tell the difference between being nowhere and being close to making it?

A related question is, how do you know whether it's worth the effort to start something? If you're just going to quit later, is the initial rush of jumping in worth the fact that nothing will be achieved in this effort?

I think that depends on your goal. If you want to have adventures, have fun, or broaden your life experiences, it doesn't really matter if you never "succeed" in the sense of accomplishing anything or achieving any goals. Start at will, enjoy it while you can, quit if it becomes a drag.

But if you have a particular end in mind, such as earning enough income to quit your day job, suddenly it's very important to know whether your pursuit will lead to success, or whether you're wasting your energy and should try something else.

Someone recommended that I read The Dip by Seth Godin. It's a short little book on exactly this subject. The premise is that anything worth doing has a dip: the part where the fun wears off and you have to put in a lot of effort to get any results. If you make it through this phase, then the whole thing takes off again and you start seeing a lot of success fast, but most people quit in the dip and never make it that far.

Not everything has a dip, though. The other main model presented in the book is the cul-de-sac or dead end. In the cul-de-sac, no matter how hard or persistently you work, the thing will never take off. There will never be a big payoff at the end.

That much we knew already. The trick is how to distinguish the two. I don't know about yours, but my life doesn't come with a graphical readout illustrating a post-dip upsweep coming up soon, or a cul-de-sac flatline. (I'm imagining it appearing above my head, like that guy in Stranger than Fiction.)

The book offers a pretty radical answer: quit everything you can't be the best in the world at. Then throw all your energy at getting through the dip on the one thing you will be the best in the world at.

Time to quit? For this broken boat, I'd say the answer is yes.

Image by Yogendra174, on Flickr

Specifically, if you're trying to influence one person (as opposed to a market) and it's not working, quit. If you're not seeing any measurable progress, quit. If you're in a non-growth situation, quit. (Examples here include dying industries and jobs with no room for advancement.) If these things are not true and you're just panicking or frustrated, you're in the dip–don't quit.

This all makes sense to me. Also, the part about being the best in the world isn't as crazy as it sounds. The trick is to define a small enough world. It's like picking a dissertation topic when you're trying to get a PhD: you have to become the world's foremost expert in your topic in order to get a PhD. That doesn't mean you have to become the world's foremost expert in computer science, it means you pick some tiny, obscure tidbit of computer science that nobody has studied yet, study it, and poof! You're the world's foremost expert in it. Congratulations, Dr. You!

In this case, the assumption is that everything worth doing has a dip. That's what keeps the rest of the competition out.

For something like word processing, Microsoft made it across the dip and then started digging it deeper and wider so nobody else could follow. You'd be crazy to try take on word processing as your next quest, unless you could come up with some radical new twist on it that changed all the rules.

But if you pick a smaller, specifically targeted market and make it through the dip, you can rule it. The trick is picking something where you have enough resources to make it through the dip. Everett Bogue seems to be a good example of this: tons of people are into minimalism, and tons of people are into making money online; he combined the two to make a small niche that he could rule, and did so.

Once you've identified what you want to pursue, the dip is your friend because it keeps the competition out. You just have to make it through yourself.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I'm still not 100% convinced that you need to quit everything you can't be #1 at, but maybe he meant that more for "you" the company than "you" the person. I can say with a pretty strong degree of certainty that I will never be the best in the world at autocross; in fact, I'm pretty sure I'll never be the best in the Huntsville, AL, club. I doubt I'll even be the best female driver in the Huntsville, AL, club. But it's a lot of fun, and it pushes me out of my comfort zone. I think it's worth doing for those reasons.

I can definitely see the advantage of being serious about only one thing, though. Back in November, I was really excited about the revelation that it's ok to try a bunch of stuff and let life sort out which things will work and which ones won't. That makes a lot of sense to me, too, but actually trying to do it hasn't been going all that well. I tend to get all obsessed about one thing and forget the others, then feel bad about neglecting them and try to catch up. I end up dropping most of the balls I'm juggling. Maybe it really would be better to focus on one thing. Obviously it would if I knew which thing to pick.

At least now I know what questions to ask. What small world do I want to rule? What dip is big enough to be worthwhile but small enough that I have the resources to get through it? What has to go so I can be #1 at what's left?

Sometimes it's actually easier to keep doing something than to quit, even if you know you should quit. Change is uncomfortable, and making decisions is also not a favorite among most people. I wish us all the courage to quit the cul-de-sacs and the determination to get through the dip. (And the wisdom to know the difference!)

1 Quitting quotes from

2Quote from

3I'm told the attribution was wrong on this one; here's a source for the correct answer. Darn inaccurate internet. (Thanks, Lach!)

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Published on January 21, 2011 05:00 • 12 views