Eating doubt like wheaties
“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”
~ Franklin D Roosevelt.
hen I told people what I planned to do, the overwhelming majority of people told me it was not for me or a waste of my potential and encouraged me to try something else. They were worried that I would not enjoy the experience and were vocal about their lack of support for my plan. They loved me. No doubt about that. But they allowed their fears and internal limitations to cloud their advice and cause them to retreat when they should have been cheering me on to
I was never angry with anyone. I fully understood. It is a common phenomenon for a person to step out on faith and take on something challenging while many close to them, even their most trusted mentors and advisers, throw up the caution flag and try to deter them.
Rather than take their criticism, doubt, and disbelief personally, I was motivated by them. I made the decision that I would do it for myself
and my family because I said I would. But I had a new reason: do it to show them what can be done.
People in our culture are woefully lacking in inspiration. We have an overload of information. With a couple of simple clicks of the mouse and a few keystrokes, you can find out what that pogonophobia is. (It’s a fear of beards, by the way.) But information alone can leave you intellectually constipated, as you have no place to use the information you learned.
Inspiration, or true motivation, is different. It makes you get up and go now, but it burrows deep into your psyche and remains there, giving you the push you need each day to get the job done. I am not talking about the motivational gurus whose advice provides a temporary jolt that fades in time. I am talking about the words of those who have been in the fight. They know what it means to stare down the dragon and win.
The fact that something you have planned is hard is a sign that you may be on the right track. Does that mean that all challenging goals are worthy goals? Of course not. But most people don’t choose challenging goals. They prefer to go after something that is virtually a sure thing. They shun the challenges that take one’s heart, mind, soul, energy, and resources to the brink. We are not naturally thrill-seekers. Most are content to confine their thrills to the latest roller coaster at their favorite theme park. But when life feels as unsettling as a roller coaster, they shout out, “Stop the ride! I want to get off.”
Choosing a difficult goal is almost certainly a sign of grit and inner strength. But seeing that goal through will require careful planning, the
ability to navigate, and the tenacity to stick through it all to make it to the end.
This is your vision. Remember that no one else saw what you saw with your mind’s eye. No one else is warmed by the fire in your belly. No one else can feel the emotions coursing through your veins with the force of the Mississippi River as you can. So don’t expect others to jump on board and buy in immediately.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the great German philosopher, postulated the theory of what survives as truth in our world. Due to the nature of human adults, who tend to default to a negative and more pessimistic viewpoint, truth moves through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Then it violently opposed. Finally, it is self-evident.
Imagine that you want to start a business. At first, it will seem like everything is against you. You may learn that lesson when you turn to your spouse and share your plan. Perhaps you are as fortunate as I am to have a spouse who supports your crazy ideas. But I suspect the majority of readers will have family and friends who discourage any move that is not in line with the norm. Most people have family and friends who laugh at the idea that they might be choosing to travel a divergent path. This is the ridicule phase.
Whenever you are ridiculed, remember that you are in good company. Light bulbs were called a fairy tale. Umbrellas were called silly. Coffee was considered a narcotic and a source of disease. Taxi cabs were dismissed as a joke because no one would ever let a stranger drive them around. The winner of the ridicule round would be the airplane, which was considered so laughable, one potential investor said it would take a thousand years before it was close to being possible. The first plane flew just eight years later.
The next phase is violent opposition. Returning to our business startup example, consider the legal hurdles you have to jump just to get your business incorporated, registered, and organized; it is enough to make a person reach for the Prozac.
Once the business is established, you will have all sorts of negativity, starting with competitors who want you to fail so you do not unseat them. You will need to raise money, find a location, hire staff, and stock your business. Even after all that, you may find that regulators, the media, and others do everything they can to shut you down. This is that “violent opposition.”
Finally, after you have waded through the gator-infested swamp of negativity and setbacks, your business begins to thrive. After years and years of hard and consistent work, a steady stream of customers rolls in, creating lines at the register that get longer and longer. You outgrow your first location and have to open a second, then a third, then a chain. With revenues shifting from numbers with three zeroes to four to five to six, the world looks on with pride and says, “That is a great business. It was an overnight success.” Little did they consider the blood, sweat, and tears for countless months or years that got you there.
“Our overnight success took 1000 days.”
~ Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb
The same was true for me as I was transitioning. People first laughed at my plan. I ate their laughter like vitamins. Then people opposed me and were critical of my choices about my future. I was warned that I was making a big mistake by leaving the military or high-potential positions in the government sector and the guarantees that came with them. I took their darts as fuel. Then, when I landed a successful position at Amazon and rose through the ranks, everyone said, “I knew you could do it.”
I just smiled.
I was nonplussed by doubt because I knew from the start, when the thought of leaving the military first rose in my mind, that there were three questions I knew I needed to answer when I decided to retire from the military:
What would I do to make money?
How am I going to cover my family’s healthcare?
Where would I live?
Shortly after my transition, I learned a new term called “sticks in the air.” This is the term my builder used to indicate that the foundation of a building has been laid and the framing (the sticks) is being put in place. Those sticks could not begin to be erected until the foundation was poured.
The message here is clear. A foundation is necessary to undergird any major undertaking—shaky foundation, shaky sticks. Yes, when we prepare to transition and make major shifts in life, we often forget to lay the foundation.
I am a huge fan of taking risks and a strong proponent of stepping out on faith to do something you have never done before. And some take the giant leap to try something no one has ever done before. Without people who possess that pioneer spirit, we would have never pushed the boundaries of frontiers on land, space, sea, technology, etc. Someone has to be the first to step out on an ocean of nothingness to test whether we might be able to walk on water.
Imagine what it must have been like for the earliest humans. As they built their societies, their safety was in the comfort and security of the group. Everything “out there” saw them as food. Staying with the group meant that you had many pairs of eyes watching your back and plenty of clubs to beat off anything that was chasing you. Together, they learn which plants were poisonous and which were life-giving. Together, they learned how to survive the punishing weather. Together, they figured out how to grow their numbers with the birth of children.
But staying with the group had its drawbacks. When food or water was exhausted or environmental threats and dangers grew, early men had to do something. Brave pioneers stepped forward and said, “I’ll go out there and see what is on the other side of the mountain.”
It was a risky proposition to send an explorer off into the distance. For starters, it weakened the group. There was one less pair of eyes and a set of muscles to help defend the camp. Often, the explorers never returned, only to be presumed dead. But every now and then, a silhouette would appear on the deep horizon—the explorer returning home with the news. “There are animals over there. There is a spring over there with cool, clean water.”
A childhood story about trying to please the crowd. A man and his son lived in a small village that suffered from drought and famine. All their crops were gone, and all their animals died, except for one young, strong donkey. They decided to take it on the long trip to town, sell it, and use the money to survive the rest of the year.
As they walked along, they passed two men building a house and heard one of them laugh. “Look at those two idiots walking in the hot sun with a perfectly good donkey to ride.”
The man hoisted his son up on the donkey, and they continued the journey. Shortly after, they came upon three men tending livestock. One said to the others, “Look at that disrespectful son riding the donkey while his poor father walks.”
The son climbed down and helped his father up. A little farther down the road, they passed a lake where some kids were swimming. They pointed and laughed. One said, “Look at the man riding in comfort while his son’s feet bake on the hot road.”
The father pulled his son up onto the donkey with him. A bit farther down the road, they passed three women pulling weeds in a field. One of them shouted out, “That poor beast has to carry perfectly healthy people while the donkey is dying from the weather.”
The man reached for a large stick that had fallen from a tree overhead. They tied the donkey to the stick and carried it. A minute later, the town fair was in view. All that was left was to cross the bridge over the river. As they did, the rushing river startled the donkey. It broke free and ran off into the woods, never to be seen by them again. In their attempt to please everyone, they pleased no one.