Yesterday, my dad forwarded me a video of skydiver Luke Aikins, who just made history for the highest jump – 25,000 feet – without a parachute. He decided he would rather fall into a giant net target. If you haven’t seen the video, please do yourself a favor and watch it. Now. Here it is.
I had actually already seen it, but I love this sh*t so much, I watched it again. While I did, I noticed I was feeling a kind of exhilaration and joy. And because I am “the introspective” type [understatement of the year], I started to think about why… I mean, I wasn’t the one jumping out of a plane – with no chute – nearly 5 miles in the air. And I realized it was because I have so much respect and admiration for people who don’t let their fear stop them from going after their goals. And also because I have seen first-hand how my world expands – exponentially sometimes – from just deciding to do the scary thing.
But I am not talking about “Big” scary things like jumping out of an airplane (which, btw, I finally had the courage to do on my 45th birthday). No, skydiving is not how we become brave.
We become brave by figuring out what one or two small things scare us and then: doing those things. Then, once those little things are no longer scary, we start to do slightly bigger scary things, and then even bigger scary things, until – next thing know – we’re flying through the air on a trapeze or we’re cliff diving in Croatia. And all of the sudden, we’re brave, too. Because the thing people often forget is brave people aren’t people without fear. Brave people are people who are scared like everyone else, but they use that fear as a motivator instead of an inhibitor. Put another way, brave people don’t let fear stop them. And what happens every time they push past the fear and do “the thing” anyway is that their bravery grows a little bigger. Just like the “asking” muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
And this matters so much to me because I used to be someone who was paralyzed by fear, due largely to my terribly overactive imagination. I used to joke with friends that I had a gift for using my imagination for “evil” instead of “good” — meaning that I would concoct truly terrifying mental scenarios of all the things that could go wrong if I ever decided to take an actual risk. And those scenarios would become all justification I needed in order to feel really good about continuing to do nothing. It’s like that quote (incidentally very often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain) “Most of the worst things in my life never actually happened” (or something like that). Haha, it’s funny because it’s true… Sigh.
Yup, for so much of my young and adult life, I was pretty much paralyzed by fear of taking any kind of risk – big or small – because in my mind the worst-case outcome always made it much safer to just stay put. Interestingly, I had a lot of self-awareness about this, but that didn’t really do me any good. Knowing I needed to change didn’t really matter. What I needed was a catalyst. And about 10 years ago, I got one.
That was the year I was visiting my aunt (Big Anne) and uncle in Arizona, and we decided to take a 45 minute drive into the wilderness to their favorite bakery. While we were driving home after sampling so many delicious baked goods, I mentioned off-the-cuff how I thought it would be really cool to move to Arizona and work in this bakery and learn the business.
What you should know about me is that this is the type of ridiculous fantasy I would concoct on a regular basis. And also you should know, I never – NEVER NEVER NEVER – had ANY intention of actually taking any kind of action toward making it a reality. Nope, for me, the fantasy was enough to keep me warm at night, and that was just fine with me. Big Anne, on the other hand, who is a (now retired) licensed psychologist (Ph.D.), had no idea that I was just talk-talk-talking with no intention of do-do-doing. And so she caught me in my act by saying “Great! You can call the owners when we get home, and see if you can set up an informational interview tomorrow to talk with them about that.”
You would have thought she had just told me I had been sentenced to death by boiling oil. My body went stone cold. I am not even kidding. I am NOT! I literally had a physical response to that perfectly reasonable and innocuous suggestion. It was the weirdest thing I have ever experienced. My mind was whirling… “Whoa-whoa-whoa… Big Anne is actually suggesting I really go talk to these people? Nope, no way… I don’t want to move. It’s clear to me now. Working in that bakery in Arizona is not something I want – or ever wanted. I’ll just let her know that I changed my mind.”
Except… I didn’t let her know that at all. I cared too much about her opinion of me, and, to be honest, I think there was little part of me that was just sick and tired of my bullshit. So when we got back to her house, I called the bakery owners and set up an appointment for the next day. And just doing that gave me heart palpitations. I know… it’s both funny and sad. Then, I upped the ante and actually went to meet them. I am telling you the truth when I say I was literally pitting up as we were driving there. And possibly also sort of hyperventilating… a little. I’m not sure. Clearly my mind had escalated the seriousness of this super low-key, relaxing, no-pressure meeting into some sort of a Code Red next-level thing. And this is what I learned that day, after I completed the interview and I was driving home feeling super damn amazing about myself: my mind had been wrong. It took me doing that “terrifying” thing to learn what I believe is the most valuable lesson I have ever learned: If you are scared of something, and you do it anyway, you will become braver – no. matter. what. (Props to Big Anne) 😉
So what does this mean for you? If you are reading this and thinking, “Oh yeah, sure she had no problem doing this task… I bet it wasn’t even really that scary for her… I mean she’s jumped out of a plane, for crying out loud. I’m not like that and I don’t even want to be,” then let me clarify something. I had wanted to sky dive since I was 16 years old. I actually jumped when I was 45… I finally found the courage to do something I really wanted to do – 29 years later. What got me to the point of having the bravery to actually jump was doing one little scary thing after another. It was slowly learning to be scared and to take action anyway… a habit that started the day I decided to call the bakery and ask for an interview.
One more thing I want to point out… scary things don’t have to be physical actions. Sometimes, being brave is just saying “enough” when you’ve been pushed and pushed or deciding to go for the degree you always wanted or asking for something you really want that might result in a negative reaction or deciding to show the world an essential part of you that, up until recently, had been deeply buried… there are so many mental and emotional acts of bravery – and those might even be more brave than Luke Aikins’ 5-mile chute-less jump.
Whatever “it” is for you, I really do believe it just takes one small act of courage to change your life for ever. What will that be for you?
One last note under the heading of “you really can’t make this stuff up”: After finishing writing this post, I went out for drinks with a friend. On the way home, in my Uber, the song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles was playing. I haven’t heard that song for at least a year… Take that to mean what you want. ;).
City-dweller, designer, writer and lifestyle consultant practicing the art of living well in the 21st Century. Fixated with good coffee, great design, and any little thing that makes life better.