Timid souls play it safe. They don’t rock the boat. They avoid risks. Steady as she goes. Fly under the radar. All very pragmatic. But that’s not living. That’s just getting by.
Teddy Roosevelt expressed this more eloquently in this excerpt from his “Citizenship In A Republic” speech:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
A few years ago the District Attorney in my county called to ask a favor. A local production company liked to use “government officials” as “celebrity” extras for their annual Nutcracker performance. The District Attorney and County Treasurer participated in past Nutcracker performances. But the County Treasurer was unable to do it again. It was decided that one of the county police chiefs would make a good stand in for the County Treasurer.
The District Attorney knew I was a creative guy who liked to write and paint. He saw me as one of the more “artistic” police chiefs in the county. He figured I’d enjoy the chance to perform in the Nutcracker. He figured wrong.
For starters, I can’t dance to save my life. The prospect of dressing up in some ridiculous outfit and twirling around with Sugar Plum Fairies didn’t thrill me. I knew the cops I worked with would have a field day teasing me.
Your bucket list
I searched for excuses. Especially after I learned there would be months of rehearsals at a local ballet company. But then the District Attorney told me, “Think about it, John. It’s something to check off your bucket list. It would be great if you could help us out.”
Defeated, I gave in. Performing in a two act ballet to the music of Tchaikovsky, in front of hundreds of people, had not been on my “bucket” list. But something told me to do it anyway. To step outside my comfort zone.
Margie Warrell, author of the book “Stop Playing Safe,” wrote an article in Forbes magazine entitled “Why Getting Comfortable With Discomfort is Crucial to Success.” In the article she wrote: “Only in giving up the security of the known, can we create new opportunity, build capability and grow influence.” Warrell talks about this further here.
When we do hard things, we grow. When we fail, we grow. Most of the break throughs in my life happened after I “stepped outside my comfort zone.” I know that sounds like a cheap 1980’s self help slogan. But it’s true.
Despite my fear of flying, I got on a plane and flew to Idaho. Because I wanted to study landscape painting with a master artist. More recently I took multiple connecting flights in oder to study writing with a successful author in Franklin, Tennessee. Each of these experiences opened creative doors for me.
There were other ventures I risked trying, only to fail at. The failure hurt. But as Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Those things that hurt, instruct.” The failures corrected my course. They helped lead me closer to my true self.
You need to embrace discomfort if you want to grow. As the old saying goes: “Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always got.”
Not that you should be reckless. That’s why it’s called “calculated risks.” One needs to weigh all the available facts, including the potential benefits versus the consequences. But in the end, sometimes you just have to dive in.
The other thing is that people don’t really care that much. A public failure may be agonizing to you, but it’s a brief amusement to others.
People are largely interested in themselves. Their own lives and pursuits. They’re not being malicious. It’s just how people are. We tend to exaggerate the interest others have in our efforts, successes and failures. But the disinterest of others actually frees us. We can experiment, explore and sometimes stumble. In the process, we become more impervious to failure. Less fragile. And that’s where growth happens.
Through the months of Nutcracker rehearsals there were days I regretted the whole venture. The rehearsals stole time from my personal pursuits. But I soldiered on.
Applause and curtains
On opening night the District Attorney and I donned our silly outfits. We even helped with each other’s stage makeup. The curtains went up, we hit the stage and performed to the best of our ability. The professional dancers were amazing. The crowd applauded and roared with approval. Afterward, backstage, there were flowers and champagne. The District Attorney smiled at me and said,” See, I told you. Something to check off your bucket list!”
A few years later that same District Attorney was struck with an aggressive cancer. He fought bravely and with dignity. But too quickly, at 57 years of age, he left this stage of life.
The funeral was something to behold. There were police officers, firefighters, motorcades, flags, judges and even the Attorney General for the State of California. But as the speakers celebrated this good man’s life, I was reminiscing about our night at the Nutcracker. Thank God I stepped outside my comfort zone.
You need to embrace discomfort if you want to grow. It’s the only way to step outside yourself and realize what you’re made of. And when you do, you may sometimes fail. But by God, when you succeed, the rewards stay with you forever.
(To read a related article I published about the District Attorney, click here.)