Here is the thing about life. You will fail. In the pursuit of what you want, you will fall many times. That is guaranteed. Fear it. Run from it. Failure comes all the same.
We are not perfect, no matter how much we may wish we were. We make mistakes, we drift off course, we betray ourselves. We fail in our actions and our inactions. In the heat of battle and the thick of the day-to-day, we grow weary, we lose strength, we begin to falter.
The initial euphoria of giving chase to our dream wears off, and all that remains is the tedium of the day to day, the dull thud of the process. Fear and doubt set in, and we find ourselves in a fog, lost in the woods of life.
Sometimes we give it a valiant effort. We do everything we can. We practice, we prepare, and we try. We hack and slash. But despite our best efforts, things just don’t go our way. Sometimes because we just weren’t good enough. Sometimes for no fault of our own. Sometimes, it feels like the universe conspires against us.
What do we do in those times? How do we respond to failure, to setbacks, to not getting our way? How do we respond to the inevitable fatigue that sets in during our quest for what we want? How do we stay strong? How do we endure?
How do we bounce back even stronger?
First we stop
“Sometimes it takes a good fall to know where we stand”
The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. We have to stop whatever we are doing. Stop thrashing about. Stop running the scripts and patterns in your mind. Stop and breathe. Admit you have failed. But know you are not a failure.
Stop regularly even before you get walloped by a big failure or setback. Failure often doesn’t just come in one fell swoop out of nowhere. The signs of impending failure are usually there if we know to look for them. The missed routine, the sloppy preparation, the work that keeps piling on to the point of overwhelm. They start off as benign and then quickly grow malignant.
If you stop regularly and pay attention, you can recognize that you are failing before things really break apart. Unfortunately, it usually takes a serious failure or hit to our ego for us to finally stop. But once it hits us, once we see that we have failed, it is time to take pause.
Then we re-evaluate
“If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” – Zig Ziglar
This part is crucial. It is no use to rush over our failure, eager to get to our next attempt, desperate for success. But failure invites us to reconsider our goals, our plans, and our strategies. Failure is an opportunity to learn.
Look around you, look at what you have done, look at what has happened. Mull it over and try and pinpoint the place where you went wrong. Try to tease out the trigger. Did you get overwhelmed? Did you fail to address bad habits? Did you not take the time to rest properly? Did you simply lack knowledge or fail to give your efforts the energy they need?
Diagnosing and carrying out post-mortems on our failures is an extremely vital leaning tool. It can help us be better prepared on our next attempt. It can help us update our strategies.
However, do not get stuck here. It is fairly easy to turn this exercise into a compulsion. Turning a situation in your mind over and over again and being paralyzed by your analysis. The purpose of the reflection is to help you learn, adjust and ultimately improve your odds for success.
Then we re-connect
“Failure isn’t so bad if it doesn’t attack the heart. Success is all right if it doesn’t go to the head.” – John C. Maxwell
Failure is never nice. It hurts, it disappoints. It causes us to begin to doubt ourselves and our journey. Have enough failure, and eventually you would quit. In the pit of our despair, we can choose to give in to the pressure and let go. Or we can forge our will to succeed and keep on trucking.
To make this decision, we must remind ourselves why this matters, why this is important, why we have chosen this journey. We have to reinforce our sense of mission, our commitment to the cause. What excites us about our vision? What do we truly want to create? What would we like to see happen in the world, in our world?
Are our actions still aligned with our values? Is this road you are on leading you to what you want? Can we rise to this challenge and seek to conquer it? Or should we pull back and take another route? Do we abandon this quest all together for a better one?
We have to get back to our why. We have to reconnect to our sense of vision, our ambition, and our desire for what we want. This is our north star, and our decisions and actions must stem from it.
Then we press on
Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Once we are reconnected with our dream and vision, we take up new energy. With our faith restored, and our souls refilled, we embark on our journey again. We are creative and productive again. We are pressing towards the goal.
If it is a goal worth pursuing, it will not be easy, but it will be a little bit easier because you have failed, and you have learned. Now you have the opportunity to do something different, to try again more creatively.
So, we work hard. We do what we know to do, while staying vigilant against the things we must avoid. Knowing that we will fail again, but we have the tools to bounce right back.
I have been thinking about this idea for a while, and some time last year, I shared it as a tweet. After it gained a bit of traction, I knew at some point down the line, I would want to unpack my thoughts properly on the concept in a blog post.
So, here it is.
As creatives, we know all about the craft. To be a creative worth your salt, you must know your stuff. We get that. So, we practice, we work, we do what we do best, which is the craft. And that is most times, the most pleasurable part of our lives, working on and honing the craft.
And that part is important. It is the price of entry. The craft gives us a seat at the table. The craft is the soul of the whole creative ordeal. It is the muse we pay homage to every time we create. The craft is our raison d’être.
But on the other side there is commerce. Because everything exists in context. We live in economic systems that we have to contend and deal with. We have to make a living, we have to take care of families, and we have to fund our art.
For some reason, over time, we have absorbed the romantic idea of the starving artist as the prevailing creative archetype. We are comfortable with the person who loves their craft so much, they devote themselves completely to it to the detriment of their material needs. They focus exclusively on the craft and as such, they are unable to succeed in the real world of commerce. We nod knowingly and sadly at stories like that of Van Gogh who died penniless.
So, it becomes a two-option choice between starving for your art or giving up on your art and embracing something more ‘respectable’ to earn a living. Is there a way to reconcile this dichotomy? Is there a way to respect commerce and thrive as an artist?
A quick glance around would suggest that it is at least possible.
In every field of human productivity, there is a wide distribution of gains. You can find people at opposite extremes of the spectrum. There are peasant plumbers and there are multi-millionaire plumbing company owners. Some musicians play small taverns and cafes, others play stadiums.
Same with actors, same with comedians, same with visual artists. One tailor makes clothes in the back of her house for her community, the other one makes clothes that adorn super models on the biggest runways of the world.
In the same way, there are many creatives over the ages who were actually very successful. There are many artists even today, who dominate their fields and reap disproportionate rewards.
How do they do it? How do they win? How does Jay Z win, how did Andy Warhol win? How did Michael Jackson win? How did Da Vinci win? How did George Lucas win?
In his Book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins shares the story of the startling discovery of Michelangelo’s true net worth by Professor Rab Hatfield – an amount in excess of $47 million dollars in present day value. This goes against the perhaps popular perception that renaissance artists were of meager means simply beholden to their benefactors. Apparently, this wasn’t the case, they were forces in their own right.
With razor sharp instincts, Andy Warhol rose from obscurity and poverty to become the most successful and highly paid commercial illustrator in New York in the 50s and eventually a celebrity and icon synonymous with the Pop art movement in the 60s. Constantly blurring the line between art and commerce, Warhol once remarked that “making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.”
Sean Carter aka Jay Z has built a $800 million-dollar strong empire spanning entertainment, fashion and hospitality by systematically parlaying his art and creativity and business smarts from one height to another and one endeavor to another.
Scott Adams made a fortune off drawing Dilbert Cartoons. Zaha Hadid left more than £70 million from her illustrious career in design and architecture. George Lucas created not one but two wildly successful film franchises, amassing a $5,4 billion-dollar net worth along the way.
I could list example after example of creatives coining it. And sure, these are the outliers, the absolute best of the best, but what principles may we glean from studying these phenomena? What makes some artists win at that level while others struggle to make it.
What separates Cassper Nyovest from the struggling rapper recording in his bedroom studio right now?
If you work your craft because you enjoy it and engage with it for the sheer spiritual pleasure of it, then by all means do that. There are few things of greater value than the soul nourishment that comes from creative endeavor.
But if you want to succeed commercially in your craft, if you want to be able to live off your art, and build a legacy, you absolutely must understand the business of your craft.
So how do we bridge the gap between art and commerce? How do we break the myth of the starving artist?
There are some principles I can think of as a starting point:
Learn about business
Business is really not that hard. In its simplest form, it is about finding a need and fulfilling it. The nature of the need and the nature of the solution is what will determine how much value you create and how much you get paid. Understanding in even the most rudimentary ways how businesses work will help you structure what you do in such a way that you are better positioned to succeed. The more you learn, the more sophisticated you get, and the more you can do.
If you want to win, you have to start to wrap your head around business. This is an underrated aspect of being a successful craftsperson. It teaches you to understand your worth, defend that worth, target those who value that worth and provide immense value to them.
It teaches you to learn your audience, to have empathy for them, to get a sense of what they want, what they are interested in, and what they respond to.
Learn the business of your craft
Every craft has its own business environment. As a designer, there are many ways to play in the market. From print design to UX, from working in agencies or corporations, to freelancing and building companies, there are numerous ways to be a part of the value chain, and each one comes with its own possibilities. The more I understand the business environment, the more strategic I can be and the better I do.
Put the business of your craft under such scrutiny. Where is the money? Who makes the most of it in your field? Who are the rockstars? Who plays at that level? Who pays at that level? What are their needs? Should you focus on consumers directly, or should you interface with companies? What are the different niches in your craft? Could you focus on just one aspect? Can you combine your craft with another? Do future changes in your field open up new opportunities to be seized?
There are a million and one ways to look at your craft differently and come out ahead.
Rewrite the rules if need be
Sometimes, If you really know what you are doing and you have paid attention to the business of your craft, you can actually change the terms of the game.
In 1979, George Lucas invested $20 million of his own money to finance the production of his sequel, The Empire Strikes Backand used this investment as leverage to finesse a deal previously unheard of in Hollywood, participating in up to 77% of the profits of the film and owning almost all the rights to merchandising.
Jay Z already in the full swing of his career, used his appointment as president of Dej Jam as an opportunity to regain ownership of his music masters, eventually starting Roc Nation and in 2008 signing a record-breaking $150 million dollar 10-year touring deal with Live Nation. In 2017, his new deal was worth $200 million dollars.
The more you understand about business, the more creative you can be, and the more you can rake in the rewards.
Which brings us to the fourth principle.
Bring your craft to business
Creative work comes with unique advantages because they speak to real and archetypal needs of human beings. As artists we are afflicted with a unique perspective on the world which fuels our creativity. It is such creativity that can breed innovation even in business.
Is there a way your knowledge of drama and storytelling can help you revamp sales as we know it, and help you move product in a way that feels almost effortless? Is there a way your skills in design and problem-solving can help you develop new hit products or new ways of servicing customers?
There are many ways creative skills can become an asset in the business arena. It just takes a little imagination.
If we are to succeed not just in our art or our craft, but also in the economy and our lives as a whole, we must not only know the craft, we must also understand the commercial context in which our craft exists.
And as we grow in this knowledge, we have the chance of getting what we want. We have a better chance of living the life we choose, funding the art we really want to make and having a real impact we know we can.
(Or, how to think about strategy)
Trying to get things done and pursuing a long-term goal can be daunting. You are aiming at an eventuality that is still quite far off. You have a sense of where you are going but don’t know quite know how to get there.
You see the mountain top, the main goal you are trying to accomplish, but you are still far off. You have started by doing it badly, but that’s just step one of hundreds of steps to get there.
Is there a way of thinking, a way of acting, that allows the actions we take to build on each other, to gain momentum, and build into a giant snowball racing furiously to our destination?
I think there is, and it’s a combination of strategic thinking and aiming for the domino effect.
Usually people’s efforts are haphazard, they are busy tied up doing a thousand and one things, but none of it is proactive, they are simply reacting to their environment. They end up expending energy in numerous directions, and achieving relatively little, running and running but staying in the same place.
But imagine if you could reduce or at least hone your efforts so they all work together to provide better results faster, building on each other to move you to the new place you desire.
That is the idea of strategy. Of achieving superior results with the same level of activity but just better directed. This is essentialism, this is the one thing, this is make less, work more.
Good strategy takes a look at the facts as they are. What are you really trying to achieve, what are the real problems in your way, what can you tackle and solve, in what order do you tackle them and what cohesive set of actions will you take to get there?
The domino effect is illustrated in the book ‘The One Thing’. Gary talks about lining up your dominoes. Each domino is an action or a mini goal. You place your goals in the right order, knowing what the one thing that would make everything else easier or move you closer towards your goal. You line that one thing up so that doing it will knock down the next thing that would make everything easier or move you closer to your goal. And so on and so forth.
Overtime, domino hits domino, and you build momentum with the energy growing and transferring with each action and toppled target.
For this to work, you need to have a sense of the interconnectedness of things between where you are now and where you are going. And you have to respect the order in which you are doing them. If you tackle the wrong domino, you will have wasted effort and need to double back to fix it.
It is like the designer or client that so eager to jump into the aesthetic design of a product without tackling the domino of strategy – who is it for, what do they need, why should they care. Or the fitness chaser running around in the gym without sorting out her nutrition first. Or worse still, a builder crafting the most gorgeous building without setting a proper foundation first.
You must strive to tackle your dominoes in the right order. In that way, each step you take would improve your odds of success.
When you let your moves stack on each other, each action creates a result that becomes the seed of the next action. So, with my business for instance, taking the time out to clarify a service offering – brand, design, digital – makes it easier for me to communicate and sell services. Taking time to define work processes for each service, makes it easier for me to work and replicate the process with clients. The design process includes me making mockups and prepping the products to look a certain way, which makes it easier down the line to showcase work done on the website, which then act as case studies and feed into content, which then feeds to sales and more work and growth for the company.
In that way, each move is made to make the subsequent moves easier, and the results of each move serve as the beginning of the next move.
To accomplish this, you have to be able to hold a vision of a desired result or situation, and then hazard a guess, a hypothesis of the possible ways forward, and then track a path that will lead you eventually to said goal.
Making your moves stack on each other can be weird territory. When you start, you don’t know anything, you are exploring options and looking for something that resonates, that grips your attention. And then you find it, and you keep working on it, you start to garner some recognition, some attention. Your moves start to give you a position that you can leverage to the next thing.
Sometimes it is easy enough, you can track your path fairly clearly, you have a good enough idea of what is needed, and the conditions are stable. Sometimes it is much harder than that, because the fog is thick, and conditions are constantly changing. You may not be able to identify all the dominoes, but you can work to increase your odds of success.
This is where you have to be woke to what you are trying to achieve and look for opportunities to move closer to that. Sometimes, you need to side step and tackle things obliquely. Sometimes it might even mean slowing down on the thing that has gotten you here, so that you can invest in the thing that will take you there.
But keep this idea in mind, hold a long-term view of your vision, connect the dots backwards and let each action become a stepping stone, and each lesson another arrow in your quiver, your moves will build and propel you to your destiny.
Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is start.
Especially when you are trying to chase the dream, do something you have never done before, create something new. There is that initial feeling of ‘ugh, I don’t even know where to begin?’
Coupled with the weight of expectation, the desire for perfection or the right working conditions, it is very easy to never start. But there is a simple antidote to this problem of inertia.
Start by doing it badly.
The creative process works in exactly this way. The first strokes on the canvas, the first words on the page, the initial snippets of code…are always rough drafts. They are never perfect. But they are where we begin. It is very seldom that I am hit with a flash of inspiration and I’m able to sit down and crank the whole thing out in one sitting. It does happen, every once in a blue moon, but that’s usually not the case. And for something like that to happen, I am usually already in a primed state. I have been writing or creating for extended periods of time and I am in complete flow.
Instead, it is really just the act of just sitting in front of the blank screen, the empty canvas and feeling a bit intimidated. All you have to work with is the urge, the spark, the vague idea, the nebulous potential of what you want to create. And that is where you must start, somehow to make all of that concrete.
My blog posts begin as drafts in my notebook app. Just a few lines, or paragraphs if I’m lucky, outlining the core of what I want to say. It is rough, riddled with errors and sometimes incomplete and slightly incoherent. But it captures the core idea. It gives me something to work with. Instead of the blank page, now I have some words, I have some ideas, I have the pieces. Imperfect pieces sure, but nonetheless, something to work with, something to shape and manipulate, to cut out from or to add to. It is still a long way until it is finally done, but at least with the drafts, the process has begun.
If you want to get what you want, you must be able to get important things done. And to get important things done, you have to be able to start.
But ‘what if you fail?’ That is one great fear that can keep us from starting. It’s not just the pressure of perfection now, it is the fear of failure. Let go of that fear. You are definitely going to make mistakes. You are definitely going to fail first. Of course, you will, you don’t know what you are doing. You are not very good at this yet. But you are moving, you are not standing still. You are transforming your potential into actual reality. Your first steps are not great, but they offer learning opportunities that move you forward.
Allow yourself the luxury of doing things badly the first few times. You don’t have to be perfect. If you fail, it won’t be a train smash. Just start. There will plenty of time down the road to correct, refine and make it great.
Now, when you begin a project or a journey towards a goal, you start off with an ideal in mind, a mental picture of what you want to achieve. Let’s call it your ‘star’. As you move towards it, it also moves. Your initial vision or goal was based on your perception before you started. But, as you do things, you learn, you get feedback. Your actions create results, and in turn, they teach you, they change you. As you act and move, your vision evolves. Your star moves as you move towards it.
And I find that interesting. As you grow, your vision grows with you. You never know where this path will ultimately take you. So even your goal can be imperfect. You can have a target right now and hold an idea of where you are going, but you can’t really say for sure that you will end up there. You start off trying to make a couple home computers for the electronics store on the corner and then decades later, end up with one of the biggest brands in the world (Apple). Taking hold of a vision and following your star will lead you down some interesting roads and bring you to unimaginable destinations.
I personally have been chasing this dream of being a designer and building a studio for a while now. Fresh out of university years ago, I read Computer Arts Magazines a lot and decided I was going to have a design studio like the ones I saw in there. And into that dream was woven other ideas and things I want to do all revolving around being creative, making art, exploring ideas and creating interventions that provoke thought and instigate action.
From being a freelancer to working on teams, that dream has evolved over time to cover branding, and strategy and products and business. These things are revealed to me over time, only as I walk the path. The vision gets deeper, more layered, more defined, the same ultimately, but different at particular points in the journey.
And as I think back, I can trace my path through construction and architecture, to performance, to being drawn in by the conceptual and the digital, to loving graphic design and pursuing that and over time combining all these other ideas and interests into my present pursuit of branding, design and entrepreneurship.
The vision is a bit different now, but I would not have gotten to this point without following my star, even as I morphed and changed, my star has morphed and changed and moved.
So, it’s okay to start badly. With little skill and bad aim. Because, what is the alternative? Stand still? Do nothing? The time passes anyway. And if you are standing still, you are really moving backwards. That is not something you can afford.
So, think about the things you know you need to start. Whatever that might be – a new habit, a project, a business, a relationship, whatever endeavor. Start it. Start it badly. It is okay to suck at first but start.
However imperfectly, take that first step. Follow your star.
I’ve been watching a lot of Jordan Peterson videos over the past two weeks and this post was inspired by a video by the same name of one of his lectures. It is worth a watch.
Having a written set of goals is not enough, you have to take action and then systematically measure your progress – Michael Hyatt
There is the idea (and I am bastardizing it here) that on a quantum level, things do not ‘exist’ until they are measured. Until you actually view light for instance, and depending on how it is measured, it will either exist as a wave or as a particle. Every atom is in a state of uncertainty, it is either there or not until you observe it, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. Or something like that.
There is something else that does not really ‘exist’ until it is measured or observed. That is your goals and your dreams. The more attention you pay to your goals and dreams, the more you look at them and measure them, the more defined they become, the faster they come true. This is part of the reason why having a vision board works. It pays to keep the target before your eyes at all times.
A big dream killer is being vague. I know all about being vague, it is one of my favorite things. Vagueness is a comfortable nebulous zone where the potentiality is sky high, and you can be anything, you can be the greatest or you can be utterly crap, but you haven’t ‘been’ yet so it’s easy to revel in the idea of what you are going to do, instead of actually doing it. It is nice to wallow in the primordial soup of uncertainty.
But nothing exists, until it is made real. Nothing exists until it is born concretely. And that is where the fear lies. The fear of the irrevocable first step, a first step or an entire journey that could end up being less than perfect. The commitment to a dream, to a path. The forsaking of others. The burning of the ships, the tying yourself to the mast. Going all in, etc. All that can be scary.
But your dreams and goals must move from being vague to being defined and definite. It is easy to have aspirations, to want something to change. But for real progress to be made, the goals have to be defined, the metrics have to be clear. It is not enough to say you want to make more money, say exactly how much money you want to make and by when. Break your goals down to numbers that you can measure and aim for. Now there is accountability. Now there is a target, now there is a deadline. Now you can focus all your energy and make sure you hit them. You need a goal that can focus your faculties and provide you with the necessary direction, motivation and limitations to achieve it.
I have spoken about why you should build systems as opposed to setting goals. The concept that you should systemize the steps and daily actions you need to take to achieve what you want. This is very useful when you are starting out because you are still getting used to forming new habits and embodying a new vibration. You are not too concerned with hitting specific targets, you are just trying to get into the general ballpark of taking regular action towards those goals. While this idea builds our capacity and habits over time; to really squeeze the juice out of this process, you must take it to the next level by having discrete and clear targets to hold yourself accountable to. This is where you turn pro.
You have to know what your numbers are. They could be a once-off hit, like run a total of 20 000 miles in a year, or a streak, like blog once a week, every week for a whole year. They could be numbers to hit in the gym, an income target to reach in 6 months. It could be a new skill, being able to start and finish a project that you could not undertake before. In any case, you need a goal, you need a target to hit, and you need a way to measure your progress.
It is easy to fool ourselves and think we are doing work towards our goals. Once we start to look at the numbers for real though, we often see a different picture.
So how do we put this into practice? There are many ways to do this depending on your temperament and the nature of your goals. But I think it would generally look like this.
1. Define what success looks like
For every project, you have to define what success is. How do you know when you have won? For instance, I am working on a book now, and my time limit is 3 months, so by end of June I should be done. What does ‘done’ mean to me? It means I have taken the idea, put together all the material needed, as well as written and reworked and polished the manuscript to my personal satisfaction. At the end of June, I should have a book in Word that reads cohesively from start to finish.
That is a finite project, it has a beginning and an end. But what about projects with a reoccurring component? For my blog for example, success to me is maintaining a certain editorial schedule. And it is based on a scale. The absolute minimum is the once a week posts which I’ve been doing so far, and the higher limit is a schedule that sees me posting about 3 times a week. So, I know I am doing the minimum, but I have plenty room to improve.
2. Determine what it would take to achieve success
What gets measured, gets managed – Peter Drucker
Once you know what success looks like for your goals? You have to break it down further, looking at your schedule and how you spend your time and figure out what your daily or weekly actions must be to get you to that goal. For project-based goals like ‘writing a book’, it can mean drafting an execution road map for the project. It could play out like this – come up with book concept/idea, craft the book outline, collect all research and articles needed, write the book, edit the book (3 passes), design the book cover, design the book layout, create pdf file, upload, share.
Now I have a clear path to follow to reach this goal and I can set time frames for each section.
Another thing I would do, is break my goals down to daily or weekly activities I can do. For example, I can decide to work on my book for an hour every day, preferably first thing in the morning. I can round that off with 4 hours of dedicated time every weekend to really push forward on the project. This also gives me something to track and be accountable to in addition to the execution road map.
3. Be accountable
Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t – Jay Z (Reminder, The Blueprint 3)
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. To make steady progress towards the goal of having a book done by June, I would need to be constantly taking steady action. Every day I wake up, I know where I am on that roadmap and what I need to do next. At the end of every day I know if I spent an hour working on my book or not. I can track that. The more important the goal is, the more important it is to track and review my efforts.
Now life is chaotic sometimes. Shit happen, things throw us off course. I could decide in the middle of the project, that this is crap and I actually don’t want to write a book. I could get busy with other projects and need to focus on those instead. But regularly I have the chance to review my work and my numbers and see if I need to adjust my plan to new realities or scrap the project all together. But at least, I have the numbers to back it up. I have a real frame of reference.
Measuring and tracking performance is not easy. It takes discipline and a commitment to the process. It is much easier to be vague and just play at it. But if you really trying to get what you want, embracing this idea will take you further faster than you could imagine.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m incredibly great at being vague. I’ll put off making a decision to the very last moment, and I’m not great at tracking the time I spend on client projects talk less of the moves I make towards my goals. But I recognize that being more aware of my metrics could have some value, hence this post, which is a stern lecture to myself as much as it is an exhortation to you.
So, do you have any tactics or frameworks you use to chart your progress? It could be health, exercise, finances, learning, projects, anything! Do share, I would love to learn from you.
flinch: /flinCH/ – verb (used without object)
to draw back or shrink, as from what is dangerous, difficult, or unpleasant.
to shrink under pain; wince.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking cold showers every day. I did not mean to, it just happened. The geyser broke, and instead of getting it fixed, I thought to myself, Benjamin Hardy has this whole thing about cold showers and why they are important. Apparently, taking cold showers everyday helps to build discipline. So instead of fixing the situation and returning to the cozy warm showers I’m used to, I decided to let it be, and dive into the experience of cold showers.
At first it was quite hard. Then it got a bit easier. Now when I go to take a shower, I switch the tap on, and dive in immediately. No time to think about how cold it is, and how uncomfortable it is. I don’t even let my mind start, I just dive in and embrace the pain. The first few seconds are tough, the sharp cold water hitting my skin, lungs hyperventilating, the burst of millions of neurons firing off in my brain during the experience. Eventually, it gets easier, and soon enough I forget that the water is cold, I’m deep in it by that point.
The aftermath is a bit interesting too, that feeling of being alive. The same feeling after you finish from the gym. That sensation that you tackled something tough and came out the other side. You are not as soft, you are a little harder, a little tougher, you lose your fear of the cold. Where others shrink back, you move boldly forward. You are a warrior.
There’s the idea of ‘The Flinch’ which I read about for the first time back in 2011. Julien Smith, the author of the book by the same name refers to the flinch as that instinctive fear that pops up once we have to take uncomfortable action. The fear evolved over thousands of years, keeping our ancestors alive in the savannah plains as they navigated a harsh and unforgiving world. That knee jerk reaction to any semblance of danger was many times the line between life and death, the difference between being the hunter and being the prey.
But we don’t live in that ancient dangerous and precarious world anymore. We live in general safety now. And even though there is a lot of bad, and there is a lot to worry about, things are on the whole better than they have ever been. But the flinch remains. It shows up as the lump in your throat as you contemplate talking to the attractive girl at the bar, the pounding in your chest as you think to raise your opinion in the board meeting. All echoes of our evolutionary programming.
We let this flinch metastasize into this amorphous fear monster that keeps us locked in our comfort zones and prevents us from taking the action required to move us forward to the next level. In the journey of getting what you want, at some point the rubber must actually hit the road. You must actually do the things and take action. And that is where many of us fail. Because it is nice to talk about it, it is nice to dream, it is nice to make the plans and hold the intention. Actually taking action and doing the thing is tough. But it can be done, and we must do it.
Know the flinch for what it is, a specter, a ghost. Meet it with bold action and find that it quickly dissipates. Get into the habit of the zero second rule. When you wake up in the morning, get right up, don’t hit snooze, don’t think about it, just get up. Remove the amount of dilly dallying in your life. You finish eating a meal, wash the dishes right away, don’t let them sit in the sink and fester away. You have a task to do, don’t procrastinate, get it done now, or do something to move it forward. You need to make a call, make that call. Don’t think about it, just pick up the phone and do it.
It will feel hard, but it will get easier. The more you do and step outside your comfort zone, the better you get at it. You will feel your discipline getting stronger. The things that were so hard will get progressively easier and you will get addicted to the feeling, soon enough you are climbing higher and tackling harder things.
Your flinch has become your worst enemy. It should be a summoning, a challenge to push forward. – Smith, Julien (The Flinch)
I was thinking about fear the other day, and if it was possible to reframe the feeling to help us instead of holding us back. What if we looked at that sensation, the feeling of adrenaline coursing through our veins, the thumping in the chest as something exciting as opposed to something to be scared of? What if we pushed forward through it? What if we learned to crave that feeling, and actually began to seek it out, going after the things that we fear so that we can feel that high? What if we turned fear into fuel?
Imagine how incredible that would be and what it would do for your life. Imagine your comfort zone expanding to cover a vast amount of things and experiences. Imagine the possibilities.
Train yourself to flinch forward, and your world changes radically. You respond to challenges by pushing ahead instead of shrinking back. – Smith, Julien (The Flinch)
I have a friend who is amazing at meeting new people. He would go out night after night by himself to new places and just strike up conversations with people. That’s the sort of thing most people are absolutely terrified of doing. But for some reason, it fuels him. It was never his default setting, he had to learn it, to deal with the fear, to embrace the excitement of new experiences and just get out there.
It was with him in mind that I recently went to a client party by myself. I walked in only knowing the client and the boss, in a party of about 50 people. I was absolutely terrified by the prospect, but I just went. It was incredibly awkward at first, but eventually I struck up a conversation with a 40-something year old man and his colleague, then eventually ended up hanging out with another group of people and making new friends. At the end of the night I was tearing up the dance floor with strangers. People I usually won’t be interacting with. And it turned out to be a fun and fulfilling night.
One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the book – The 50th law by Robert Greene and 50 Cent. It is actually inscribed on the back of the book, it says ‘nihil timendum est’ which translates directly from latin as ‘Nothing is frightening’ or more colloquially as ‘Fear Nothing’. It inspires me to remember that fear is not real, it is all about how we perceive and interpret events. And as fear falls away, we grow our own power to deal with things and affect the change we want, and even where we can’t, we learn not be mentally tormented by these things but to maintain our peace and equanimity about things.
Face the flinch, and defeat it, everything you want is on the other side of fear.