I wanted to have another review up this weekend, but things got really crazy with school. Also due to a misunderstanding with Wordpress I lost all the notes and the beginning draft I had, so I'm going to have to reconstruct things, but I'm sure I'll have it up in the next couple of days.
In the meantime, I wanted to talk about something that I think has general application: taking risks.
Most human beings are risk-averse. I think it's in our genes, really. If you take lots of silly risks, you might end up being eaten by lions before you've had a chance to pump out lots of babies, so by and large it makes more evolutionary sense to stay by the campfire so long as you have enough food to last you through the winter.
But at the same time, we have a spiritual desire and need to excel, to do something more interesting then just sit around doing the same old thing. I think we all have things we'd like to do that would require stepping out of our comfortable life and doing a few scary things. Does anyone else have a Bucket List? I do.
(For those who haven't heard the term, a Bucket List is a list of things you'd like to do before you kick the bucket. Make one, I dare you.)
In modern day, taking risks might not end in a lion attack, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have potential consequences that are uncomfortable or frightening. You might want to get a different job, but are afraid that it won't be any better than the one you have, or afraid you will have to take a pay cut, or afraid to lose the friends that you have at your current job. You might want to write a novel, but are afraid of showing it to someone and getting rejected or laughed at, afraid to write that novel and discover that you suck at writing, afraid to try and not have the staying power to finish it.
I'd say about 90% of our modern fears circle around failure. It's not that the actual, objective consequences are so dire - you won't be eaten by lions if you write a novel and it isn't very good. But failing feels crappy. It confirms our worst fears that we really aren't very good at this whole life thing and never will be, and while success is an attractive idea, not failing is at least a secure position to take. If you don't try, you can't fail, and you still have the potential to succeed in the future when you do try. And you'll get around to that, when you're sure that the odds of you succeeding are greater than the odds of failure.
Of course, the reality is that you'll never be sure of those odds. Because you can't know until you give it a try. And so you'll never get that better job, write that book, learn to ski, or go backpacking in Australia.
I like to think that I'm a risk-taker. I packed up and moved across the country to a place I'd never been to before without a job waiting for me, because I wanted to leave the job and city where I was living and thought Vancouver would be a nice place to live. I went to law school, which I think is something only crazy people really do when they know full-well what they're getting into - which most of my classmates did not, but I did. I write, even though I might suck, and I intend to become a professional author.
I'm still risk-averse, don't get me wrong. I'm still terrified of failing like everyone else. And there are definitely areas in my life where I'm not doing so well - I struggle with my weight, for example. But to me the potential of success is more important than the fear of failure, in certain areas. Succeeding is kinda awesome, is what I'm trying to say, way more awesome than just standing around not failing.
What I'm also trying to say is that there's nothing magical about me that I can do these things while some other people aren't willing to. You can do it, too. And it's really kinda simple.
So here's Jessica Bronstein's off-the-cuff, made-up-just-now strategy for success:
1. Figure out what you want to do.
I think most people have this down. They have things they'd like to do in life that they've never done before. They can see how their lives might be improved if they do X and Y.
Remember what I said about a Bucket List? Have one of those. Really. And write it down.
Most importantly, think about how things would be better if you did those things. Have a clear image in your mind, even if it feels like a fantasy. It really does help.
It also helps to pick one at a time and work on that, I think. Maybe two.
I think if you're making major changes in your life it helps not to spread yourself too thin, which is why I've given myself a bit of a pass to finish law school and then focus on getting published. I just have too many balls in the air otherwise.
But don't think that it's just about big things like going back to school to change your career or moving 4000 km across the country with your wife, and whatever else you could fit in a Toyota Corolla. It can work on little things, too. Like finding a better job in the same city, or writing a story, or taking lessons to learn a new skill. I see people all the time being paralyzed even by these small risks.
2. Think about the worst thing that could possibly happen if you fail at this task.
I don't mean wallow in it. I mean think, objectively - what's the worst thing that will happen? If you write that novel and it sucks, what have you lost? Okay, you've lost a bit of time, hours spent working on something that didn't turn out so great.
Strip off the emotion. Forget about the feeling of failure and the lower self-esteem you might have for now, and really face the potential consequences. You're not going to die if you write a novel and it sucks. You're not going to lose all your friends. You're not going to lose any chance of ever being a professional novelist, because you can always write a second novel. It's not just one chance and then it's is over. And this leads into the next step.
3. Get really clear about what good things will happen, EVEN IF YOU FAIL.
I think this is key. Let's say you wrote a novel and it sucked. You likely learned something. You practiced, and your next novel will be better. That's not something to be dismissed - it's great! Even in the worst of failures, there is likely something that you will get out of it, and that something will probably be valuable. Knowing that there is good even in failure can alleviate much of the potential sting of failure.
4. Redefine failure.
Okay, this may seem really strange, but it works. It's not okay to just not try. Not doing it because you're afraid of failing, is a failure attitude in itself. Not trying, not doing it, is not succeeding. You can't succeed unless you take a step forward, so so long as you aren't taking those steps, you're failing.
Get clear on that, because that means that you can't just sit around comfortably and hope that one day you're going to have the courage to try - you have to try now, because you're failing right now, and failing sucks.
5. Redefine success.
Life is a journey and you can do lots of stuff on that journey before it ends. Failing at something isn't the end of your life, as I said before, and you can always try again. So long as you haven't given up and decided not to try again, you haven't fully failed yet.
And on the flip side, so long as you take even one step towards success at your goal, you're succeeding from that moment. Even if you take a step back here and there, you're still closer to your goal than you were before you took that step, and that, in itself is a type of success. That is a win, even if it's small.
One reason why taking steps towards success is so daunting is because people assume that they haven't won until they reach the end goal, and they're not sure they ever can reach that goal. But if you redefine succeeding as beginning when you take your first step, it becomes much less frightening.
6. Break it down into steps and take the first step.
You can't write a novel today, but you can write something today, or at least write down some ideas and figure some stuff out. Writing for one day is a step towards finishing a novel, and writing for one day is now a win that takes you out of the mire of constant failure and moves you towards your final goal.
So do it, whatever "it" is. Do it today. And feel good about what you've done. Give yourself a pat on the back for succeeding at something today.
And tomorrow, do it again.
You'll get there, sooner or later. If you stay still forever, it's inevitable that you'll fail. But if you keep on moving forward, it's inevitable that you'll win. And all you have to do is figure out what you want to do, and take one step.
What are you going to do today?