On Second Chances: Why It’s Important to Face Your Fears

This is a guest post from Betsy Wuebker. It fits perfectly with my recent meditations on action and fear. Betsy and her husband Pete are location independent entrepreneurs who currently live on the island of Kauai. She writes on travel, simplicity and independence at PassingThru.

More than forty years ago, I had a conversation with my father. From his hospital bed, he delivered a warning: “Never say ‘what if?’ There might not be a second chance. You don’t want to look back and be sorry.”

Dad died two days later, and his comment was cemented in my memory.

I think Dad sensed what was coming and stepped outside his normal comfort level to communicate a legacy. When my husband’s parents were passing decades later, they lamented the things they hadn’t finished. As they started to say their good-byes, both longed for second chances. Their voices joined my father’s to form a sort of heartbreaking chorus.

In Viralnova’s list of dying people’s regrets, things left undone are cited: not traveling, staying in a bad relationship or terrible job, hesitating, failing to risk. Clearly, unresolved regret can interfere with our sense of contentment to the very end.

When you’re younger, you might hedge decision-making with the illusion of a second chance. There seems to be plenty of time to try new things, to get things right.

But as the years have passed, I’ve gradually learned to make most decisions by following my father’s advice. I think about what I might regret the most, and then choose the opposite. And once in a while, I give myself a second chance. So I moved across the country and back, quit jobs and working for others altogether, traveled, resumed or let go of relationships, and took piano lessons again.

I’m not completely without regrets, but attempting to navigate life with less remorse compels one to settle things. I think in terms of the long run (which, at my age, is rapidly shortening). Can I change it? Do I want to try? Should I let it go?

I make choices by asking, “If I don’t do this, will I be sorry?”

Or, “Does this give me a second chance to get things right?”

Recently I got a letter from my elderly uncle. Reminiscing, he wrote, “I envy your trip to Russia. Always wanted to go there, but never made it.” I perceived only a small regret in this. Whether my uncle visits Russia now makes no real difference. He’s led a very interesting life with long-held other priorities, so letting go of this desire is okay.

Sometimes the universe itself puts forward second chances; if so, I pay attention.

Last year, we moved to Hawaii; it was a second chance at a plan I’d bailed out of in my twenties. I left a friend in the lurch then and I’ve regretted it ever since.

Six weeks ago, I gazed over the cliffs of Normandy. For twelve years, I’d regretted not making the day trip to the D-Day beaches from Paris. I’d have surely regretted not seizing the chance this time.

Regrets require that you accept them and acknowledge what you’ve learned, or act to change the situation. Thoreau said, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” Second chances can determine whether we live afresh in sadness or joy.

A Summary of My Philosophy on Action and Fear

Note: Today, as with every Monday during 2014, I’m publishing a short “chapter” from my unpublished ebook about fear, happiness, and freedom. Today marks the conclusion of the first section, the section on fear. Here’s a summary of everything we’ve discussed so far.

During the past three months, I’ve written a lot about the relationship between action and fear.

To begin, I talked about the regrets of the dying. On their deathbeds, people generally regret the things they did not do rather than the things they did. They also regret having spent so much time seeking outside approval instead of focusing on their own feelings, values, and relationships. In short, at the end of their lives, people regret having been afraid.

Where does fear come from? Some fears are physical. Others are psychological. Some fears are rational. Many are not. Healthy, rational fears keep you alert and alive. Irrational fears and anxieties prevent you from enjoying everything life has to offer.

In part, our irrational fears are fueled by the mass media. We’re bombarded by news of the exceptional and the unusual, so that we come to believe life is more dangerous than it actually is.

A mighty weapon in the war against fear is the power of yes. By teaching yourself to accept opportunities in life, you can gradually overcome your irrational fears. You can teach yourself to become bold, to try new things, to meet new people, and to enjoy a more rewarding existence.

This is one of the secrets of lucky people. What we think of as “luck” has almost nothing to do with randomness and everything to do with attitude. Everyone chooses more or less what kind of events happen to them. You make your own luck.

It can help to imagine that life is a lottery. Any time you do something — especially something new — there’s a chance that your life will be vastly improved in the long run. When you say yes, you’re given a lottery ticket. Often that ticket won’t pay off. But sometimes you’ll win the jackpot.

But saying yes isn’t enough by itself. To cure fear, you must take action. Action cures fear. Action primes the pump. When we’re prepared, we feel competent. When we feel competent, we feel confident. When we’re confident, our fears fade into the background.

More than that, action is character. If you always do your best and you do what’s right, then you needn’t fear the results. Sure, bad things will happen sometimes. But if you’ve done well and done what’s right, the negative outcome isn’t your fault — it’s just how things are. If you’re unprepared, however, you must own the negative consequences.

You are defined by the things you do — not by the things you think or say. The bottom line is that you are what you repeatedly do. If you don’t like who you are, you must choose to be somebody new.

What have action and fear to do with personal and financial independence? Everything.

The first step toward freedom of any sort is facing and fighting your fears. “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

From these humble beginnings, you can progress to greater things.

Next, we’ll explore personal well-being. For the next few months, we’ll talk about what happiness is, how it’s achieved, and what you can do to maximize happiness in your life. Happiness, too, is an important part of achieving personal and financial freedom.

We Are What We Repeatedly Do

We are what we repeatedly do — not what we once did, and not what we did only once.

One mistake does not define you, nor does a single act of kindness. These events may provide glimpses of a potential you, but who you really are is revealed by what you do on a daily basis.

  • You can say that health is important to you, but if you don’t eat and act healthfully, it’s just not so.
  • Thinking about writing doesn’t make you a writer; writing makes you a writer. If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.
  • You can say your life’s too busy and you want to slow down, but so long as you keep scheduling things, you’re showing that you value your busy-ness more than the downtime.

I’ve self-identified as fit for almost five years. For most of that time, I have been fit. I’ve eaten well and exercised often. But during the past year, my attention has been focused elsewhere. My priorities have shifted. As a result, I’ve allowed my diet and exercise regimen to slip until today they’re average at best. I can see it in my body and feel it in my mind.

Talking about fitness and having been fit in the past won’t make me fit today. To be fit, I have to be fit. Fitness will return when I choose to eat right and exercise once again. Not just once, but every day.

If you don’t like who you are, choose to be somebody new.

We are what we repeatedly do.

Note: This quote — “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” — is frequently attributed to the philosopher Aristotle. However, Aristotle never wrote this. Instead, the quote is Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s philosophy.

In Order to Lead, First You Must Follow

To prepare for two upcoming projects (an Entrepreneur article on work-life balance and my upcoming Pioneer Nation presentation on time management), I’ve been re-reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

This morning, I happened upon Franklin’s story of starting the Philadelphia public library. When he publicized the “scheme” (as he calls it), he had trouble selling subscriptions. (In 1730, libraries were formed by pooling mutual collections of books and then asking people for donations or “subscriptions”.) Eventually, he found a way to get more members.

The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one’s self as the proposer of any useful project, that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project.

I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practised it on such occasions, and, from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.

If it remains awhile uncertain to whom the merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encouraged to claim it, and then even envy will be disposed to do you justice by plucking those assumed feathers and restoring them to their right owner.

This passage gave me a flash of insight.

Interviewers often ask me how it is that Get Rich Slowly became successful. I generally attribute its success to the power of story and my willingness to interact with the audience. But this anecdote from Franklin made me realize there’s another piece to the puzzle.

One of the reasons Get Rich Slowly became successful is because for a l-o-n-g time, I claimed no special knowledge about finance. Instead, I merely relayed the work of others. Sure, my articles were espousing particular viewpoints — “debt is bad!” “index funds are awesome!” — but I wasn’t presenting these viewpoints as my own. Instead, I was summarizing the work and opinions of outside authorities.

By doing this, I kept my ego out of the equation. It wasn’t an intentional thing (other than the fact that I had no special knowledge to impart), but it was beneficial nonetheless.

This reminds me of a lesson that I learned at a leadership camp in high school. We were talking about how to build consensus and how to get people to buy into your vision. As an example, we looked at Watership Down, the story about a band of rabbits searching for a new home. Our instructor pointed out that Hazel, one of the two rabbits that headed the group, had an interesting leadership style. He never took credit for anything. Instead, he let other rabbits make suggestions and then Hazel pushed the agenda forward. He was certainly acting as a leader, but he was taking no credit or glory.

Another example: Kim and I started watching Survivor: Nicaragua last night. Early on, Marty decides he doesn’t like former football coach Jimmy Johnson and wants him eliminated from the game. Marty asks several people to vote Jimmy J. off the island. But when he speaks with the ego-centric Jimmy T., he takes a different approach. With Jimmy T., Marty acts submissively. “What do you think we should do?” he asks.

Jimmy T., who hasn’t an ounce of humility in his body, says he wants to get rid of Jimmy Johnson because he feels like the latter doesn’t respect him. Marty agrees, of course, and he makes Jimmy T. feel like he’s the owner of the idea. (Jimmy T.’s arrogance — hell, it’s hubris — leads him to be the next player eliminated from the game.)

The bottom line: If you want to persuade, don’t put forth ideas as your own. Remove your ego from the equation. Even if you have no desire for attention or glory, don’t claim ownership of ideas when you can attribute them to another source.

What I’m Up To: My Work for 2014

Sometimes it seems like I’ll never learn.

After vowing at the end of 2013 that I wouldn’t overburden myself this year, that I’d take 2014 off as a year to relax and to work on my own projects, I’m just as over-committed as ever. On one hand, I don’t mind. It feels good to be busy and to be doing productive work. But on the other hand, it would be nice to be pursuing personal projects.

So far this year, my main work has been the guide/course that I’m writing for Chris Guillebeau’s series of “Unconventional Guides“. Mine, naturally enough, is an unconventional guide to money. I’ve written it based on a single conceit: You ought to manage your money as if you were the chief financial officer of your own life.

This guide took much longer to produce than I’d anticipated. It was tough for me to find the “hook”. Even after I’d discovered how to approach the material, it was difficult to get every chapter to fit the mold. In the end, though, I’m happy with how things turned out. This is some of the best material I’ve ever written. It feels like there are chunks missing from the guide (how to work with a team, for instance), but those can be included as part of a follow-up email series.

That brings up the work I’ll be doing for the next two months. Now that the guide itself is finished, it’s time to create additional content. I’ve already conducted sixteen interviews with other folks in the financial world (including Jean Chatzky, Ramit Sethi, and Liz Weston), and those audio files will be available. But I also need to develop a supporting website with additional content, such as downloadable forms and files, plus links to resources around the web.

Beyond that, I’ve agreed to resume writing the “Your Money” column for Entrepreneur magazine. My first piece is due tomorrow. Plus, I’m in talks to write for another popular personal-finance outlet. Combine this work with my twice-monthly articles at Get Rich Slowly and the writing I want to do here, and that’s plenty of responsibility.

On top of this, I’m doing more speaking this year.

  • In a couple of weeks, at Pioneer Nation, I’ll be speaking about “time management for solopreneurs”.
  • In June, at Digital CoLab, I’ll talk about the power of networking (and how to network the right way).
  • In August, I’ll return to Ecuador to participate in a second retreat. Last year was so successful that we’re going to do two retreats this year. During week two, David Cain (from Raptitude) and I will present on “Happiness and Freedom”. Look for more info soon!

I’ve also entertained three additional speaking requests, although I’m likely to accept only one of these.

So, that’s what I’m doing for my “day job”. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work on some time-consuming personal goals. After gaining fifteen pounds with my aborted “scrawny to brawny” fitness program, I want to lose the weight to get back to where I was last autumn. That takes time. (I’d like to spend two hours per day exercising, although I’m lucky to find sixty minutes per day at the moment.) I’m also taking guitar lessons, spending time with Kim, and trying to make time to read.

The bottom line: Life is busy but good. I had hoped things would be less busy in 2014, but apparently my priorities lie elsewhere. I guess I’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride!

Update! This morning, my friend Jim published a podcast interview with me in which I discuss past projects (including Get Rich Slowly) and present ones. This was a fun conversation. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it since the interview was conducted, but I remember enjoying the discussion.

Action is Character

A decade ago, I was full of hot air. And I was lazy. And depressed. This wasn’t a good combination for getting things done. I talked a lot about the things I wanted to do, but I never did them. I found reasons not to. I even had trouble keeping up my end of the household chores, which frustrated my wife.

I was a Talker.

Maybe you know somebody who’s like this. A Talker seems to know the solution to everything, has great plans for how she’s going to make money or get a new job. She can tell you what others are doing wrong and how she could do it better. But the funny thing is, a Talker never acts on her solutions and her great plans. She never gets that new job. She’s out of work or stuck in a job she hates.

To everyone else, it’s clear that the Talker is full of hot air, but he believes he’s bluffing everyone along — or worse (as in my case), isn’t even aware that he never follows through on his boasts and promises. Sometimes a Talker conflates talking with doing. When confronted, a Talker has excuses for not getting things done: He doesn’t have time, he doesn’t have the skills, the odds are stacked against him. When a Talker does do something, he often takes a shortcut.

That, my friends, is the man I used to be.

Something changed in the autumn of 2005. I began to read a lot of books. Not just personal finance books, but self-help books and success manuals of all sorts. As I read the books, I discussed them with my cousin, Nick. During our conversations, I’d sometimes lament that X was a priority in my life — where X might be exercise or getting out of debt or reading more books — but that I never had time for it. Instead, I “had to do” a bunch of other stuff instead.

“Well, then X isn’t actually a priority,” Nick would say, which made me angry. I’d argue, but Nick would point out that the things we actually do are the priorities in our life. What we say doesn’t matter; it’s what we do that counts.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson, but eventually I began to align my life with my stated priorities. Instead of just talking about doing things, I did them. I stopped looking for shortcuts and started doing the work required to get things done. Unsurprisingly, this worked. When I did things instead of talking about them, I got better results.

Today, I am a Doer.

In his notes on The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Action is character.” Fitzgerald meant that what a fictional character defines who that character is.

The same is true in real life: You are defined by the things you do — not by the things you think or say. If you never did anything, you wouldn’t be anybody.

Action Comes First: Coping with Fear and Procrastination

Every morning, Kim wakes at five o’clock to get ready for work. Most days, I just lie there. “I don’t need to get up,” I think. “I’ve nowhere to go.”

But I’ve learned that if I don’t get up, I regret it. If I stay in bed, I don’t make it to the gym. I miss work deadlines. I have less time to do the fun stuff, like hiking, and reading, and riding my motorcycle.

So, I get out of bed. I get dressed. As unappealing as it sounds, I go outside for a walk or a run — even when it’s raining (as is frequently the case here in Portland). The first few minutes suck. I’m tempted to go back to bed. Before long, however, I find I’m actually enjoying myself. I return home invigorated, eager to get things done.

Rain run

If I were to wait for motivation, I’d sleep all day. By forcing myself to take action, I find the motivation that was missing before.

Feeling Good is a popular self-help manual by David Burns. The book helped a younger me through an extended bout of depression. Part of the solution was to overcome my chronic procrastination, procrastination brought about by fear. In Feeling Good, Burns describes the problem.

Individuals who procrastinate frequently confuse motivation and action. You foolishly wait until you feel in the mood to do something. Since you don’t feel like doing it, you automatically put it off. Your error is your belief that motivation comes first, and then leads to action and success. But it is usually the other way around; action must come first, and the motivation comes later.

Action primes the pump.

Anxiety is largely self-doubt and insecurity — an underlying belief that you cannot handle whatever is before you. Anxiety often causes fear and procrastination. Because of this, preparation plays a key role in mitigating fear.

When you prepare — to speak to a crowd, to hike through a bear-infested forest — you decrease your doubt. You can’t eliminate the possibility of failure, but you can drastically reduce the odds against you. You rehearse possible situations. You practice the required actions. You allow your imagination to explore (and cope with) worst-case scenarios. In short, you prime the pump, which prepares you to do your best.

And that’s the important thing: If you always do your best and you do what’s right, then you needn’t fear the results. Sure, bad things will happen sometimes. But if you’ve done well and done what’s right, the negative outcome isn’t your fault — it’s just how things are. If you’re unprepared, however, you must own the negative results.

When we’re prepared, we feel competent. When we feel competent, we feel confident. When we’re confident, our fears fade into the background.

Photo by Antony Mayfield.