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The Thing You Think You Cannot Do

“Most folks are about as happy as they want to be.” ~Abraham Lincoln

I’ll be upfront: I stole the title for this post from Gordon Livingston’s book The Thing You Think You Cannot Do. I am yet to read it but the title spoke to me, so I decided to write about it.

That thing you think you cannot do. I have so many of them. A little over a year ago, my partner expressed his desire to sky dive. I looked at him as if his hair was on fire and set the record straight: You’re free to do it, but I won’t accompany you.

Of course, I was afraid. What happens after the dive? How would the whole thing feel? Will I be safe? Will I die?

(Although, I now know that one’s at a higher risk of dying by driving than sky diving. If you drive, your chance to die in a car wreck is 1 in 6,000 versus that of sky diving, which is 1 in 100,000.)

On the surface, it sounds I’m afraid of the activity of diving, but when I look closer, I can see this pattern in many areas of my life and lives of my clients.

It’s called the fear of the unknown. No rocket science there.

That reminds me of a story my grandma used to tell me when I was little.

The Farmer Who Lived Through Fear

Once upon a time there lived a farmer on the foothills of a huge mountain. The farmer was a simple man, religious and conservative in his thoughts. He feared God. He had a little daughter named Saavi. His wife had passed away a long time ago and it was only him and his daughter living in their small but happy home.

Each day, the farmer woke up at 4 am, bathed, prayed, and milked the cow. At 6 am, he woke Saavi up to get her ready for school. They’d have a humble breakfast together and Saavi would tell him stories from her school. She was an intelligent child and was curious about many things around her.

The farmer was always patient with her questions, answered them in the best way possible. He carefully guarded away his biggest fear from her. But the little girl would always end up asking about the mountain near their house.

“Can we go on the mountain to play?”

“No! I’ve told you many times. The mountain is not safe.”

Days passed by and summer came along. One day, the farmer came home from the fields but could not find Saavi anywhere. He checked with the neighbors but she wasn’t there either. Where had she gone?

The neighbor’s daughter was Saavi’s age. She told the farmer Saavi had mentioned the mountain in school.

What would he do now? He knew the mountain wasn’t safe. Legend said that there was a beast living on the other side of the mountain.

The farmer could not leave his little girl alone. Soon it would be dark. He mustered the courage to do what he’d avoided for 30 years. He started climbing the mountain.

As he neared the top, he shuddered at the thought of the beast, but pulled himself together and kept moving. Soon he reached the spot where he could see what’s been sneaking behind the mountain for years. As he stepped forward, he gasped. In front of him was the most beautiful lake with surrounding green pastures with his daughter sitting beside.

Why Do We Fear the Unknown

Fear happens when you’re living your life in your mind. Your mind has two aspects: one is imagination (future) and other is your memory (past). The fear of the unknown is based in the future – you’re always focused on what is going to happen.

You do not live your life based on what is, but what might be.

Another aspect is your thought. Thoughts lead to feelings, experiences and behavior. You may know that an average human being has anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Research states that 80% of these thoughts are negative.

In its simplest form, a thought is a discrete event and a collection of visuals, sound, and words. A thought can influence your mood and action.

Turns out, if you cannot think, you cannot fear. If you were stuck in a wild forest, you’d be naturally afraid. But soon you get tired and sit down under a tree and fall asleep. Do you feel the fear while you’re sleeping? Not likely. Because you’re not consciously thinking while you’re asleep.

Some people, on the other hand, may seek thrill and adrenaline-pumping adventure from this. They channel their thoughts about fear in a completely different way.

A third way to look at it is the lack of knowledge. When you are sitting nice and tight in your comfort zone, you don’t know what lies outside the zone – in other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. Just like the farmer in our story.

Knowledge is empowering. It lets you hack fear. Learn something new and you won’t be afraid of doing it.

How to Beat the Fear of the Unknown

1. Focus on the present

When I was little, I used to be terrified of staying home alone. I would draw up all sorts of scary monster stories in my head.

As I grew up, I started to focus on the present moment. Am I OK now? Yes. Great, what do I want to do next? Read. Ok. What should I read? And so on…

Once I rearranged my focus, my thoughts about the unseen future (and monster) gradually faded away.

2. Take the first step

Are you waiting for courage so you can take action? Because that’s never going to happen.

If you wait for courage to turn up in the mail, you’ll be waiting for a very long time. Courage comes, but only when it sees you’re serious about your goal.

You need to break the cycle and take the first step. Just focus on what could be the next immediate best step for you in this case.

Two years ago, I felt the tug of doing something more with my life. I was comfortable, but I was yearning for “more meaning”. As a writer, I spent most of my days at home in isolation creating amazing stuff for clients. I was contributing through my writing in my own little way. Now I was ready to do it more directly.

It was time to go out and touch more lives and help more people. My next best immediate step was to look up courses offered in my city and study human behavior. And I did that. Took up a course. Soon I started seeing clients one-on-one, and contributing in a larger way.

3. Ask Better Questions

Humans are designed to fill gaps. If someone asks you a question, you come up with an answer. You might have one or you may not, but that doesn’t matter. Your brain wants to fill in the gap and get it answered.

If you ask yourself stupid questions, you’ll get stupid answers. If you ask yourself, “I wonder why they’ll be rejecting me”, your brain will oblige and give you some cool answers unless you’ve found the one that satisfies you (and sucks the most).

Job done. You have an answer ready before the rejection has even happened.

Now, let’s flip the sides and ask a different question:

“I wonder how I can do this even better”

Or,

“How can I make more time to exercise?”

Can you spot the difference? The last two questions presuppose you can do this, and they ask how.

Try it: Ask yourself a great question and watch your brain do its best to answer. For example, if you’re afraid to take the plunge and become an entrepreneur, ask:

What is the next immediate best step I can take right now?”

It could be a tiny step, and that’s OK. Remember, even slow progress is progress after all.

P.S. In my case, the question I’m asking is “How amazing it’d feel once I’ve conquered my fear of a 3000-feet free fall“. I haven’t yet taken down the sky-dive ‘beast’ but I’ll keep you updated on how I go. Stay tuned! :)

Image by asafantman.

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