Do you believe that a book can change your life? It’s a question along the same lines as whether you believe in love at first sight. If you do, you may find it happening to you; if you don’t, it’s hard to say. Books have changed my life over and over again. Sometimes, a simple article or blog post will. It happened tonight. Chris Guillebeau wrote a post entitled, “Taking Risks” is Not the Same as “Doing Hard Things.” I read it and found myself on the brink of tears, with chills running through my entire body. It hit me so hard that I’m still processing three hours later. This post will be a bit of real-time practical philosophy in action.
As a quick summary of a short, highly readable article, the main points are:
This hit me like a ton of bricks. I spend a lot of time and effort doing hard things for the sake of doing hard things. Essentially, if I am confronted with a weakness in myself, I want to dig it out, like removing an eye from a potato. I felt that I was physically cowardly and weak, so I pushed myself, doing longer and longer races and backpacking trips, jumping over flames, climbing ropes, crawling under barbed wire… because I’m too scared to donate blood. I tried once, but I fainted when they pricked my finger, and they asked me not to come back “for several years.” (Now I’m under the acceptable weight limit to be a blood donor, and that makes me feel both relieved and guilty, like I’ve gotten away with something unsavory). I know I am weak, but knowing that helps drive me in the direction of self-discipline, grit, and determination. Just because my legs are shaking doesn’t mean I get to quit.
Does it get me anywhere, though?
It seems that my biggest stumbling block in life right now is my reluctance to publish. I have a 95% complete novel, and when I say “complete,” I mean that I even have the book cover and the material for the book trailer video. I have about 75% of a project that I know will sell, with clear direction on how to finish it. I have an entire index card file full of dozens of viable project ideas. Whenever I get close to where all I have to do is open the gate and swat one of these projects on the hind end, I withdraw and work on something else. As I read the article I’m gushing over, it seemed to me that fear of risk was the missing piece. I was perfectly willing to do the hard work of writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, and editing again. I reached the point years ago when critique started to feel useful and worth seeking out. Something is going on that doesn’t have to do with difficulty. Fear of entering new territory?
I turned to my husband and told him about this idea of risk versus doing hard things. Then I read him the article. We had a discussion about risk and hard things – and this is where the tide turns, because the conversation went in a very unexpected direction. The person who knows me best did not agree with how I categorized the things I did. In short, he sees risk in places where I see difficulty, and vice versa. This confounded me somewhat.
He put running my marathon in the risk category. In all my training, that never crossed my mind. I knew the course was covered by hundreds of volunteers and safety professionals, I knew the route, and I knew I was getting over the finish line even if I had to elbow-crawl until midnight. I just thought it was hard. Not even extremely hard. Physically difficult, yes, but mentally, emotionally? Nah.
I put my public speaking project in the risk category. He said, “How is that a risk?” I gave him fish face. Completely poleaxed. I realized he was right. I was in a place specifically designed for nervous beginners to develop skill and confidence. The room could not possibly be more supportive or friendly. Yet, in spite of the welcome audience, I am still physically shaking every time I get up to speak. I have done karaoke with no problem; I’m an extrovert, and I don’t mind being in the spotlight. (I don’t seek it out, but… ) There is something about being behind a podium that activates my fight or flight system in a bad way. The first time I managed to speak for longer than sixty seconds, I could barely walk afterward. My legs almost collapsed under me. I can run for 26 miles and carry a 42-pound backpack. My thighs are strong. The only thing that makes sense is that I’d be relieved when my speech was over – but I find myself still shaking five minutes later. My husband and I both agree that public speaking is difficult for me. Is he right that it isn’t risky? Are we interpreting risk in different ways? Or does he underrate it simply because public speaking isn’t a big deal to him?
I learned something funny from our conversation. Apparently my habit of walking alone late at night feels very risky to him. Good to know. It made me think that many of the activities I categorize as ‘difficult’ actually have a level of physical risk that doesn’t faze me at all. The marathon, the adventure race, traveling alone, walking around major urban centers alone at night, hiking into the back country for days out of cell phone range… Maybe I have it backward? Maybe I have no problem with risky things, and what I perceive as risk is really something entirely different?
We agree that there is a certain measure of risk in making my writing public. I have some very controversial views about a very emotional topic, and I often feel I’m on the edge of igniting a viral hate ray in my direction. We also agree that I have virtually no tolerance for financial risk. Largely, though, it seems that he defines risk in either a financial or physical sense. Emotional risk is a different territory.
Is there a bright line for risk? There are obviously situations anyone would agree are risky, such as trying to rescue someone from a burning building or to mediate a domestic dispute. On the other end of the scale, someone might feel real risk in asking someone for a date or applying for a job. (I just did the latter, and when I used it as an example of a risk I had taken, my husband thought it was not risky but difficult, and I couldn’t even figure out why he would think it was difficult. It’s really just writing a letter). Risk involves the possibility of loss. Loss of life and limb, certainly, that would count as risky. Loss of money? Yup. Loss of face? Risk of public humiliation? So much of the time, we fear humiliation, only to find that whatever we were planning to do barely registered on anyone else’s radar. We can really do almost anything, and much of the time, nobody else will care, or even notice. We don’t need permission.
I think there are two things going on, at least in my case. First, anything that stretches my self-image or boundaries tends to set off warning bells. I only want to do things that feel natural, that I can easily imagine myself doing. Second, there is the problem of The Resistance, as defined by Steven Pressfield. The Resistance seems able to attach itself to specific tasks or projects, even when I’ve done virtually identical things many times before. Under scrutiny, many things that feel risky turn out to be little more than mirages. Where is the risk in applying for a job? Where is the risk in speaking for one minute to a receptive audience? Where is the risk in publishing a book? Why are these things so frightening?
Why am I more afraid of publishing than I am of walking around alone at night? That doesn’t even make sense.
FEAR MEANS GO. I read that somewhere recently, and I felt it as a shameful burn. It’s so much more comfortable to suppress those spooky feelings and let opportunities pass by unexplored. I’ve managed to spend a great deal of time, energy, and focus doing things that are perceived as difficult, partly to prove a point to myself and others. I want to be seen as someone who does not back away from challenge. In some ways, that works very well as a diversion. Look over here, not over there. Ignore that whole part about how busy I am not doing the most obvious thing, because it makes me nervous.
Is risk all about our personal evaluation of risk? Are there levels? Is it like pain, in the sense that what one person can easily tolerate would shatter someone else? If certain things that seem risky to others feel easy to us, are we better off exploiting that advantage, or pushing harder on our personal weak points?
I’m not done stewing over this. It feels like the conundrum of a lifetime. It seems to demand a chart. For now, I’m going to move my focus away from ‘hard things’ to ‘hardEST things’ and expect more tangible results from myself.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.