"I am brave enough to live my life."
Pt 2: a practical handbook about risk
[coordinates: en casa in Oaxaca with a seriously strong cuppa Earl Grey with a dash of coconut milk and honey]
the soul needs famine as much as it needs feast
it needs desserts as much as jungle and forest
the desire to be brave enough to live your life
is all the evidence you’ll ever need
to tell you
you already are
A few weeks ago in a tiny village of Tzununa, Guatemala overlooking majestic Lago Atitlan surrounded by five volcanoes, I found myself unexpectedly offered a handful of flammable soap bubbles by a calm, sweet woman who was holding the business end of a cigarette lighter.
Every decision is a risk.
I sat back and watched the situation and attended to the list of fears ticking off reasons why igniting my hands would be a terrible idea.
No health insurance in Guatemala
No idea how long in a tuk tuk + a boat ride across the lake it would take to get to the nearest hospital anyway
Am I doing this to prove something to myself or to the strangers standing around looking expectantly?
Are these strangers qualified to offer such shenanigans safely so that I can be reasonably sure I will not need medical care in a foreign country?
I would never tell you to ignore your fears. My fears are pretty damn wise, and I’m betting yours contain some hard-won pearls of wisdom too. I gave mine all due consideration before making my choice.
The last fear took me the longest to work through, but I did finally work out that the facilitators were competent, and I did indeed wish to do this thing. I played with fire and didn’t get burned.
I declared at the moment of ignition:
“I am brave enough to live my life.”
You wouldn’t think I would need such a pep talk. I’ve done so many risky/bold things in my life that it would get tedious to list them all. Among my favorites are –
A poor girl from Arkansas started two companies before she was 40
Trusting my inner knowing three months after the pandemic started and moving to Mexico without having ever visited any of the places I would eventually land in
Giving myself permission to become a musician and study with my hero, Poranguí
Traveling solo to Iceland, Holland, England, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and Syria where I communed with some of the oldest and most elegant temples, souks, and bazaars in the world in 2009 right before they were bombed off the map
Did all my risks pay off?
Isn’t that the key question our ego snarls us with – “will it be worth it?”
I would have to answer yes* but with a giant asterisk. All the risks I’ve taken have paid off, except not in the way your ego probably hopes.
They paid off in the sense that I am exceedingly happy I did all of them. More of them than I would like to admit, however, were giant goat rodeos. I am ok with that. I am happy that said goat rodeos are firmly in the past, as some were incredibly damn painful. (Hello, six heartbroken weeks in Egypt this time last year.)
Should you take all of the risks you can invent and imagine for yourself? No, not by a long shot. That I can say I don’t regret a single risk means that
I’m a very good risk taker and also;
I have an enormous ability to turn chicken shit into chicken salad, as my almost-favorite boss Nathan Brown famously said.
In today’s installment, I will pass along the painful wisdom which I’ve accrued at great emotional and financial cost about how to accomplish both. You will never become a good artist or creator without these skills. Good art requires authentic self-expression which is one of the most vulnerable and brave risks you could ever take.
Rule #1: Take the risks you’ll later be proud that you took.
I want to give you a way better question than “will it pay off to take this risk?” My biz partner and part of Team Dragon, David Swedlow, flips the usual “what would you do if you couldn’t fail?” and instead asks “what would you still do even if you knew that failure was guaranteed?”
You’ll likely have to push through some discomfort to come up with an answer. Be gentle if it takes weeks or months to find an answer.
These worthy risks have a distinct quality that sets them apart – when you imagine failing at them you’re obviously delighted by your own audacity and eager to learn whatever lessons that failure would teach you.
That! That is what makes a risk worthy of saying YES to. This is the stuff HELL YESES are made of. If you’re a person with a million ideas like me, you need a high bar to hold them against so you can throw the vast majority away. You can’t do all your ideas or you’d drive yourself to distraction.
Not many risks will be this fabulous, but the ones that are will make it worth the wait. This is entirely wonderful news, btw.
Rule #2: Be aware of your right-sized risk.
If you feel called to take bigger risks, consider what’s blocking you from being able to do that now. What incorrect beliefs do you have about them? Write down a list of what finishes the statement –
If I take too big of a risk __________________________.
What are you afraid will happen? For me, it was –
If I take too big of a risk I’ll push the finish line out further.
If you don’t follow rule #1 then perhaps the mistake could push the goal further away. However, if you follow rule #1 then that can’t be the case. I can’t guarantee much, but I’ll put my stake on this –
an honest, brave mistake
taken with pure intention
and carried through sincerely
can only bring you closer
to wherever you’re going
Will you reach the stated goal? I haven’t the slightest idea. Anyone who guarantees that you will undoubtedly endeavors to sell you something. I can guarantee that you will find the next piece of the puzzle, but not that it will look like the thing you thought it would be.
mistakes get you closer to success, not failure
the bigger the mistake
the bigger the alchemy
and the bigger the value to humanity
but only if you can accept
and surrender to the possibility of failure
if failing would shred your sense of self too deeply
then do not take it on
It’s a bushwhack. It’s an ambush.
How big of a risk is too big? You are no hero for taking on risks that have the potential to destroy you. You will set yourself up to have no choice but to avoid failure at all costs. In your desperate chase to outrun this destruction, all manner of nincompoop nonsense will happen.
Do not do this. For the sake of everyone who will be impacted by your nincompoop-ness and for the sake of your own sanity, do not.
Which risks can destroy you? The ones you take in the vain attempt to satisfy egoic desires for success, approval, riches, a false sense of safety, a misplaced desire to save the world or appear to be a Good Person, etc. This topic is a whole book unto itself which I do hope to one day write. Let’s say the working title is: Poison Apple or Sweet? A User’s Manual to True Desire.
Rule #3: Denial is not just a river in Egypt
The bigger the mistake, the bigger the alchemy, and the bigger the lessons. To receive the lessons, you must fully feel the pain of the mistake without numbing or disassociating until you forget, shaming yourself into confusing drama, collapsing into a fearful panic spiral, distracting from the pain by people pleasing the other people in the room, or getting enraged and destructive. This represents but a short list of our fine selection of egoic defenses that can keep you walled off from the lessons.
Do not underestimate the power of your denial and blindspots.
You can break through denial if you stop running a mental simulation of your feelings and instead experience the primary felt senses of the body. This felt sense is a layer below emotions such as sadness or anger. You’re looking for only the raw sensory data of a being made of flesh and blood.
This is not some abstract notion, but a specific skill you can learn. It is both far harder and far more rewarding than your mind can imagine. Men especially need help with this.
How to feel your (actual) feelings:
a practical guide
First, put your hand on your heart until you feel the warmth. Feel your lungs expand and contract under your hand. Stay on this step until you feel a sense of excitement or curiosity to proceed.
Next, scan your body head to toe to find the area of greatest sensation. Keep your awareness with it until you can locate the exact center of where the discomfort is arising from.
Breathe into the center and notice:
Temperature – Is it hot or cold?
Density – Is it heavy or light?
Color – Include the whole spectrum plus sparkly or dull.
For bonus credit – What material is it made of?
On the other side of this connection to body and heart, you will know something you didn’t before.
Chances are you’ll know several somethings. The bigger the mistake, the bigger the harvest of lessons. On behalf of your future self, I bid you “you’re welcome.” Your future self will be so happy you did this hard and necessary work. I imagine them two years hence waving backward at us with a tiny yellow flag at us and cheering us on.
If you got nothing from the exercise, you didn’t feel your feelings sufficiently. Return to the beginning and go slower. Note: If your internal monologue is asking “what should I be feeling about this situation?” then you are most definitely running a simulation. Return to the list of physical sensation questions until you can locate yourself in your body.
If you try a few times and are still quite blocked, you may need the support of a pro.
If, however, you skip this step, you will repeat the mistake until you complete the required coursework.
Never underestimate the power of your ego to protect you from pain. There is, however, no way that to learn from your mistakes without processing the pain. All of the required lessons are required, and no one gets to skip steps. You’re not being punished, only taught what’s needed.
If you’ve already made it this far in your journey and sincerely commit to doing all the steps, I’m confident you will arrive.
In case you missed it…
Part 1 in this series about becoming a creator: What is good art and why does it matter?
For more about feeling, check out my essay on how to stop confusing emotions with thoughts which was one of my most popular ever.
From Oaxaca, besos…
Cris and Team Dragon