To do or not to do? To try or not to try? Most people will vote no, whether they consider themselves brave or not. Uncertainty and the prospect of failure can be very scary noises in the shadows, and most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty. For years, I set goals, made resolutions to change direction — nothing came of either. I was just as insecure and scared as the rest of the world.
The simple solution came to me accidentally in 2004. At that time, I had more money than I knew what to do with — and I was completely miserable. I had no time and was working myself to death. I had started my own company, only to realize it would be nearly impossible to sell. Oops. I felt trapped and stupid at the same time. “I should be able to figure this out,” I thought. Why am I such an idiot? Why can’t I make this work? What’s wrong with me? The truth was, nothing was wrong with me.
Critical mistakes made in the company’s infancy would never let me sell it. It had some serious defects. (This turned out to be yet another self-imposed limitation and false construct — it was acquired by a private equity firm in 2009.) The question then became, “How do I free myself from this Frankenstein while making it self-sustaining? How do I pry myself from the tentacles of workaholism and the fear that it would fall to pieces without my 15-hour days? How do I escape this self-made prison?” A trip, I decided. A sabbatical year around the world. So I took the trip, right? I’ll get to that. First, I felt it prudent to dance around with my shame, embarrassment and anger for six months, all the while playing an endless loop of reasons why my cop-out fantasy trip could never work. One of my more productive periods, for sure.
One day, while envisioning how bad my future suffering would be, I hit upon a gem of an idea: Why don’t I decide exactly what my nightmare would be — the worst thing that could possibly happen as a result of my trip? Well, my business could fail while I’m overseas, obviously. A legal warning letter would accidentally not get forwarded, and I would get sued. My business would be shut down, and inventory would spoil on the shelves while I’m on some cold shore in Ireland. Crying in the rain, I imagine. My bank account would crater by 80 percent, and my car and motorcycle in storage would be stolen. I suppose someone might also spit on my head from a high-rise balcony while I’m feeding food scraps to a stray dog, which would then spook and bite me squarely on the face.
Suddenly, I started thinking of simple steps I could take to salvage my remaining resources and get back on track if all hell struck at once.
Then a funny thing happened — as soon as I cut through my vague unease and anxiety by defining my nightmare, I wasn’t as worried about taking a trip. Suddenly, I started thinking of simple steps I could take to salvage my remaining resources and get back on track if all hell struck at once. I could always find a temporary bartending job to pay the rent if I had to. I could sell some furniture and cut back on eating out. The options were many. I realized it wouldn’t be that hard to get back to where I was, let alone survive. None of these things would be fatal — not even close.
On a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being nothing and 10 being life-changing — my so-called worst-case scenario might have a temporary impact of 3 or 4, and I believe this is true of most people and most of their would-be “holy sh*t, my life is over” disasters. Keep in mind that this is the one-in-a-million disaster nightmare. And if I realized my best-case scenario, or even a probable-case scenario, it would easily have a permanent 9 or 10 positive life-changing effect.
In other words, I was risking an unlikely and temporary 3 or 4 for a probable and permanent 9 or 10, and I could easily recover my workaholic prison with a bit of extra work if I wanted to. This all equated to a significant realization. There was practically no risk, only huge life-changing upside potential, and I could resume my previous course without any more effort than I was already putting forth. That is when I made the decision to take the trip and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. I started planning my adventures and eliminating my physical and psychological baggage. None of my disasters came to pass, the business did better than ever, and I practically forgot about it as it financed my travels around the world in style for 15 months.
If you are nervous about making the plunge into a major and exciting life change — whether professional or personal — or simply putting it off out of fear of the unknown, making yourself answer these seven questions can be your antidote. Write down your answers, and keep in mind that thinking a lot may not prove as fruitful or as prolific as simply brain-vomiting on the page. Write and do not edit — aim for volume. Spend a few minutes on each answer.
What doubt, fears and “what-ifs” pop up as you consider the big changes you can — or need to — make? Envision them in painstaking detail. Would it be the end of your life? What would be the permanent impact, if any, on a scale of 1 to 10? Are these things really permanent? How likely do you think it is that they would actually happen?
Chances are, it’s easier than you imagine. How could you get things back under control?
Now that you’ve defined the nightmare, what are the more probable or definite positive outcomes, whether internal (confidence, self-esteem, etc.) or external? What would the impact of these more-likely outcomes be on a scale of 1 to 10? How likely is it that you could produce at least a moderately good outcome? Have other people done this before and pulled it off?
Imagine this scenario and run through questions 1 to 3 above. If you quit your job to test other options, how could you later get back on the same career track if you absolutely had to?
Usually, what we most fear doing is what we most need to do. That phone call, that conversation, whatever the action might be — it is fear of unknown outcomes that prevents us from doing what we need to do. Define the worst case, accept it and do it. I’ll repeat something you might consider tattooing on your forehead: What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do. As I have heard said, a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.
It is equally important to measure the atrocious cost of inaction. If you don’t pursue those things that excite you, where will you be in 1 year, 5 years and 10 years? How will you feel having allowed circumstance to impose itself upon you and having allowed 10 more years of your finite life to pass doing what you know will not fulfill you? If you telescope out 10 years and know with 100 percent certainty that it is a path of disappointment and regret, and if we define risk as “the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome,” inaction is the greatest risk of all.
If you cannot answer this without resorting to the BS answer of “good timing,” the answer is simple: You’re afraid, just like the rest of the world. Measure the cost of inaction, realize the unlikelihood and repairability of most missteps, and develop the most important habit of those who excel and enjoy doing so: action.
Excerpted from Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. Copyright © 2017 by Tim Ferriss. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.