Up In The Air

As I referenced in my last newsletter, change is difficult for most of us. And trying to alter any hardwired habit usually requires a great deal of courage and individual effort. One of my clients who is about to leave his job recently described to me the feeling of quitting as similar to what he felt when he first went skydiving. The idea was something that he had carefully considered and grew excited about for years. Yet when the actual time came for him to jump, staring out into the abyss below, he was gripped with an unimaginable fear of the unknown. The instructor had to literally push him out the door.

Here’s the thing though: all of life is uncertain – whether we’re jumping out of an airplane or not. And as we get older, it becomes even more uncertain. When we are younger, we may assume that if we do all the right things – go to college, get a good job, get married, make good money and so on – we can create a certain future. But ask anyone who has buried a loved one, been downsized or divorced, and they will tell you “not so.” It’s a clich√© to say that we are living in an age of unprecedented anxiety, and if you look around you, it’s easy to see why. War in the Middle East, a sputtering economy, daily terrorist threats, a gushing oil spill in the gulf with no signs of abatement – this is a new age of uncertainty.

Of course, the problem is not so much the uncertainty, but rather our insistence that it should be different. As Americans, we invest an inordinate amount of time and energy in trying to get reality to match our expectations of how things ought to be. We strive for a security (national and personal) that we fully believe is attainable, while all the evidence would seem to suggest otherwise. The paradox of striving for external forms of security is that the larger the fortress you build, the more vulnerable you feel to attack. Just as the more stuff you have, the more insurance you need to cover it. But real security – at least the kind worth having – is truly an inside job.

The evidence of this can be seen in a terrific documentary film entitled “Lemonade” which I’ve referenced in the past. For anyone currently “up in the air” or trying to figure out what to do next, this film is a revelation – and a celebration. The film documents the lives of sixteen former advertising professionals who have recently been let go. What do people who were once paid to be creative for a living do when they’re fired? Well, they get inventive with their own lives. One person became the artist that he was always meant to be. A young woman became a yoga instructor and holistic health counselor. Another turned his passion for coffee into a thriving gourmet coffee business. The film is the brainchild of Erik Proulx, himself a former ad man who was given the axe. In order to overcome his own inertia and help others like himself, he started the website: http://www.pleasefeedtheanimals.com. Check it out if you have the time.

If you were to speak to any of these people, I’m sure they would say that the hardest past of beginning any new enterprise is just getting started. The task ahead, if it’s worth doing at all, is often long and difficult. Even worse, the outcome is unknown and the fear of failure always present. But if you know anything about static and kinetic energy, you’ll also know that it’s much harder to get something moving from a dead stop than it is to keep it moving once in motion. As a coach, this is how I see my role. Sometimes I’m the locomotive giving them a push out of the station. Sometimes, I’m the skydiving instructor shoving them out the door! It’s doesn’t really matter how you get started, so long as you get started.

A couple of years ago when I wanted to learn how to surf, I attended a surf camp in Mexico. It was humbling and frustrating trying to get up on that surfboard for the first time. Just when I was nearly there, a big wave would come along and pummel me, forcing me to swallow half of Sayulita Bay (and my pride). But I stuck with it. And eventually, after a few days’ war of attrition, something clicked and almost effortlessly, I stood up on the board as a wave carried me safely to the shore. The thought of it still makes me smile. At the end of the week, the instructor left us with what I thought was a brilliant piece of advice. “Remember,” she said, “the best surfer is the one having the most fun.

“Whether you’re learning to surf, starting a business, jumping out of a plane or trying to land a new job – the outcome is always uncertain. To be alive is to live with uncertainty every single day. Pain, difficulty, loss, rejection, failure: this is our lot as fragile human beings. But it need not get in the way of what we need to do for ourselves. Remember, the purpose of life is not to live so carefully that you eliminate all the risk – but rather to live it so well that even death, or the fear of it, cannot remove your joy or stand in your way.

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