Commit! Begin! It’s easier said than done, of course.
If you’re hankering to do something big, let’s take a look at how to make it a little more achievable.
Things that seem very different often have much in common. You can learn from many different people’s approach to life. It’s a reason to experience things very different from your own chosen route, to take a look at the same problem from a fresh angle.
Earlier in the year that I walked from Salalah to Dubai, I rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. I was struck that the two journeys were so similar and the obvious differences (blue, wobbly, wet versus brown, still, dry) in fact didn’t count for nearly so much. The similarities included the discomfort, the hostile environment, the slowed-down hours, the banter.
But in one important aspect, rowing the Atlantic Ocean was unlike any other journey or project I have ever undertaken. There are, clearly, a number of things that could go really quite wrong when you head out into 3000 miles of ocean in a 9 metre rowing boat.
(In actual fact, so long as you keep attached to the boat and keep the hatches shut, then nothing catastrophically bad should happen. It’s a great example of perceived risk and fear versus real danger. So too is being eaten by a shark.
But still, there is the prospect of capsize, and storms or being crushed by a freight ship, and the endless too-close proximity of naked, hairy male arses. These frightening-sounding things preoccupied me heavily before we began. You would be a reckless fool if you didn’t reflect on the potential hazards before embarking on a big adventure like this.)
Once we started rowing, out of the harbour, out of sight of land, past the point of no return, something vitally important began to sink in: there was no way off this boat. We were in this for the long haul.
However seasick I was, however scared, tired or bored I may get, there was no way off this boat. I have never done anything in life where, even if I really wanted to, there was no chance whatsoever of quitting and scurrying off to somewhere a little cosier, easier, safer. Out at sea there was absolutely no way to say “I’m done with this”. The only thing to do was row. And, if we rowed, then eventually we would hit land and success.
In other words: it was impossible to fail.
This realisation came upon me gradually, in the same way that you row through the long dark nights and slowly, almost imperceptibly, dawn creeps up on the day. And then, suddenly, it is light once again, the sun broaches the horizon, and the doubts and weariness of the night are blasted away. Appreciating that we could not fail out there in the Atlantic Ocean was a huge moment for me. Because I realised that what I feared the most, what had weighed me down the most before we began as I sat on the jetty staring out at the bloody huge ocean we were about to tackle, what I really feared was just the fear, the uncertainty, the unknown, the prospect of losing control.
Out at sea, knowing now that there was no real way to fail, and certainly no way to quit, was so liberating. I stopped worrying, stopped churning through exhausting negative thoughts, and instead set about trying to savour the experience. Whenever we attempt something bold, we tend to get bogged down by theoretical fears and hypothetical disasters.
Now, it’s much easier to say this than to actually do it (and the ocean row, where you can’t fail even if you want to, is not a normal scenario) but wouldn’t it make all our lives and our plans so much more enjoyable, unshackled and zippy if we just relaxed a little?
Consider the risks, of course. Make sensible contingency plans, of course. But, by and large, just get on with things, and only fret about problems when they actually arise. How quickly and positively we could gallop forward! And, for many of my projects, it’s helpful for me to compare my daily woes with being out in a storm in a leaking boat in the dark, mid ocean, with two incredibly sore buttocks and a diet of shit food for the next month and half…!
Almost every person who reads this is – on a global scale – moderately well-educated, connected and affluent. I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but I’ll use myself as an example specimen: if all of my plans and savings and money-earning avenues failed right this moment, I know that I’d be OK. I know that within 24 hours I would be able to find myself some sort of job. I live in a climate mild enough that even if I had to sleep on the streets for a while I would not die. Therefore, I know that I can earn money, buy food and stay alive. I will not die. If I fail, I will not die.
What then do I fear? Losing money. Losing self-respect. The sneers of peers.
Money I can get more of. My self-respect should remain intact if I gave my all. Therefore it must be the “told you so’s” that hurt the most.
In which case, I need to read, again, the man in the arena and then just crack on with what I am doing.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
It’s an eloquent expression of what’s more pithily known as the “fuck you factor”!
So at the very least, ask yourself this hypothetical question today, “if I had no fear, if I imagine that failure is not an option, what would I do and when would I do it?”
The answer, I suspect, would be “now”.
Let me describe my “now” moment, the moment I summoned up the nerve to commit to doing what I really wanted to do.
I was teaching science at a secondary school near Oxford. I was a trainee teacher, good at the job, and taking my first steps on the interesting, satisfying but conventional ladder towards eventually becoming a Headmaster. A good job, money enough, loads of holidays, and a nice pension. My mum would be happy.
So I was pleased and flattered when the Headmaster at the school offered me a permanent position. I sat down to carefully write my formal letter of reply.
Here are a few excerpts:
“Dear Mr. Walker,
…I would definitely enjoy working here on a permanent basis…
However there is so much to see and do in the world…
If I was to settle into teaching now I am sure that I would enjoy it, but there would always be something gnawing at me…
Therefore I have decided that I am going to go ahead with my original plan to take 2 or 3 years cycling around the globe. I believe that my experiences on the road will only serve to improve my teaching skills when I do decide to return to teaching…
Deep down I know that [teaching is] probably the sensible option. However, even deeper down I know that if I have the chance to do something now and do not take it, I may always regret it.
Well done, my young me. Well done and thank you!
I climbed onto my bike, waved goodbye to my family, my past life, and a nice, safe, conventional future. I pedalled down the road, and just kept riding. It was over four years before I returned. I cycled across five continents, and I crossed the oceans by boat (By the way – I hitched my way onto boats simply by asking. I spent over a year asking everyone I met whether they might have a boat I could jump on to get me across the Pacific Ocean. Eventually someone said, “yes”. Ask, ask, ask, ask…)
Anyway, cycling round the world is pretty simple, really. You need a bike, a tent, a map, and that’s about it. I quickly realised that my careful months of planning were actually important for one thing only: to give me the confidence to begin. To help me overcome my nerves and the safe, cozy inertia of just keeping on doing what I was already doing. It was an important to reach a tipping point, and to build the most powerful thing of all: momentum. Call it resistance, call it the lizard brain – it’s a common thing this struggle to make yourself begin.
But once you do start, once you get up some steam, you are vastly more likely to succeed than before you take that first tiny step. The first tiny step is massive. Without it, there will never be anything. And not only is it critical, this first little step is also very easy. Don’t worry about all the big things that may go wrong somewhere down the line. Don’t think how long and difficult the journey may be. Just take that first tiny step. That’s all. It’s so easy, if you make yourself look at it without magnifying it with fear.
You probably know your big dream, or at least have an idea. My challenge for you right now is to identify the first tiny step. What is the first thing you need to do to get yourself in motion? And when are you going to take this step by?