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How to build confidence (and destroy fear)

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My mission at Get Rich Slowly is to help readers achieve personal and financial freedom. I want to help you master your money and your life.

Generally speaking, we focus almost exclusively on the financial side of the things. This week, I’m going to shift gears and share some of the things I’ve learned about overcoming fear, finding happiness, and achieving personal freedom. (Don’t worry. We’ll get back to the hard-core financial talk very soon.)

In December’s discussion of wealth habits, I talked about what T. Harv Eker calls “financial blueprints”. Actually, I talk about them all of the time. Understanding your money blueprint is a vital part of changing your relationship with money.

Our blueprints are created through lifelong exposure to money messages received from people around us, especially our family and friends, and from our country’s culture and mass media. Eker says the unfortunate truth is that most of us have faulty blueprints that prevent us from building wealth.

“When the subconscious mind must choose between deeply rooted emotions and logic, emotions will almost always win,” writes Eker.

He says that most of us are motivated by fear, especially when it comes to money. We don’t call it fear, though. We say we’re motivated by security. Eker notes — correctly — that fear and security are essentially two sides of the same coin. The tough truth is that money doesn’t dissolve fear.

Eker writes:

Fear is not just a problem, it’s a habit. Therefore, making more money will only change the kind of fear we have. When we were broke, we were most likely afraid we’d never make it or never have enough. Once we make it, however, our fear usually changes to “What if I lose what I’ve made?”

Like Eker, I’ve found that fear motivates a lot of people. Instead of making decisions based on goals and desired outcomes, most folks make fear-based decisions. As a result, they get less out of life than they’d hoped, less out of life then they might if they knew how to overcome their fears. (For more about this, see last week’s article about scarcity mindset versus abundance mindset.)

I’m not judging. I’ve been there. For years, I let fear rule my life. But over the past decade, I’ve learned how to quell many of my fears. Better still, I’ve learned how to act in spite of my fear. As a result, my life (financial and otherwise) has drastically improved.

Today, I want to teach you how to destroy fear and build confidence. To begin, let’s talk about death.

Note: Long-time readers have seen some of this material in other forms. This is my attempt to gather all of it into one place.

The Regrets of the Dying

Australian singer-songwriter Bronnie Ware worked in palliative care for many years, spending time with men and women near death. As she worked with her patients, she listened to them describe their fear, anger, and remorse. She noticed recurring themes.

In 2009, Ware wrote about her experience in a blog post that went viral. She turned that article into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. When people die, she says, they often express one or more of the following sentiments:

  • “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” People (especially men) often find themselves trapped on what economists call the hedonic treadmill. They work to achieve material wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. Instead, they want more. So, they work harder to achieve even greater wealth and status, which should bring happiness but doesn’t. And so on, in an endless cycle. People trapped on the hedonic treadmill are never happy because their reality never meets their ever-increasing expectations.
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” In order to keep the peace and avoid rejection, we sometimes bottle our emotions inside. But refusing to be open and honest leads to a life of quiet desperation. Sure, the barista at the coffeehouse might laugh if you ask her to dinner; but it’s also possible that dinner could lead to the love of a lifetime. On your deathbed, you’ll regret the things you didn’t say and do far more than the things you’ve done.
  • “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.” In Aging Well, George Vaillant summarizes more than fifty years of Harvard research into adult development. “Successful aging [is]best achieved in relationship,” he writes. “It is not the bad things that happen to use that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.” In The Blue Zones, his book about populations of people that live longer than most, Dan Buettner writes that two secrets to a long and healthy life are making family a priority and finding the right “tribe”. At the end of their lives, people who failed to foster friendships regret it. (Here’s my summary of The Blue Zones.)

[Blue Zones commonalities]

  • “I wish I’d let myself be happier.” Happiness is a choice. Your well-being doesn’t depend on the approval or opinion of others. Happiness comes from one place and one place only: You. This idea, which is well-documented in happiness research, is the key to personal and financial success. (On Thursday, we’ll explore this notion at great length.)
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life others expected of me.” Ware says this regret is most common of all. “When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it,” she writes, “it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.” We spend too much time doing the things that others expect of us. (Or the things we think are expected of us.) But living for the approval of others is a trap. We can never hope to please everyone. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to please anyone – other than yourself.

These regrets share a common theme. In each case, the dying lament having spent too much time seeking outside approval instead of focusing on their own feelings, values, and relationships. This is true regardless of wealth and social status.

Ware isn’t a nurse and she’s not a scientist – her observations are based on experience, not empirical data – but from my reading over the past decade, her conclusions match the research into happiness and human development.

Money can’t buy happiness – at least not directly. Money is a powerful tool, it’s true. Abused, it brings sorrow and suffering. Used wisely, it opens doors, delivers dreams, and fosters joy. Although wealth is no guarantee of well-being, the more money you have, the easier it is to flourish.

But here’s the truth: You don’t want to be rich – you want to be happy.

On your deathbed, you want to have lived a life without regret. To do that, you need to face and defeat your fears. You need to find joy in day-to-day activities, and use that happiness as a platform to procure passion and purpose. You need to forge freedom, both personal and financial.

The Source of Fear

Our lives are filled with fear.

Some of our fears are physical. We’re afraid of spiders, snakes, and dogs. We’re afraid of heights, crowds, and enclosed spaces. We’re scared to jump out of airplanes (or even to fly in them), to go swimming, or to touch a drop of blood. We’re afraid we might be mugged.

Some of our fears are psychological. We’re afraid of failure, darkness, and being alone. We’re afraid of the future. We’re afraid of death. We’re frightened of being judged by others, and scared to ask someone for a date.

[J.D. under bear sign]Some fears are rational. I, for instance, am scared of bears. This is a healthy, rational fear. Bears will eat you. When you ignore your fear of bears, you can up like Timothy Treadwell, the man profiled in the film Grizzly Man. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler for anyone.)

If you’re walking alone at night and a thug demands your money while holding a gun to your head, you’ll feel afraid and rightly so. This is a natural, rational fear.

These healthy fears have a biological basis, and are the product of millions of years of evolution. A fear of snakes (or bears) has helped the human race to survive. A fear of heights keeps you from spending too much time in places where you might fall to your death.

But sometimes rational fears can become irrational or excessive. It’s one thing to be nervous while walking on the edge of a crumbling cliff high above a river; it’s another to suffer a panic attack on the seventeenth floor of a well-constructed, glass-enclosed office building. (Or to worry about a bear attack in Paris!)

Still other fears are mostly (or completely) irrational, yet they’re very common. An estimated 75% of all people experience some degree of anxiety when speaking in public. I’m one of them. I’m aware of no biological basis to be afraid of giving a speech in front of 500 strangers, yet doing so makes most of us sweat and stammer.

Healthy, rational fears keep you alert and alive. Irrational fears and anxieties prevent you from enjoying everything life has to offer.

If It Bleeds, It Leads

If our lives are filled with fear, that may be due in part to the prevalence of internet, television, and radio. Our fears are fueled by the modern mass media, which makes money highlighting extreme and unusual events.

Here, for instance, is the front page from the 18 January 2014 on-line edition of USA Today:

USA Today headlines

Human trafficking! Attacks on Americans! Identity thieves! Remains of dead boy! Elsewhere on the front page, there are stories about extreme weather, a new truck that burst into flames, the background of a high-school gunman, a gay teacher forced to resign, and so on. And this is a normal, uneventful day.

If you pay attention to the news, you might think terrorist attacks are common, bicycles unsafe, and that it’s dangerous to let children play unattended in the yard. Yet statistically, terrorist attacks are exceedingly rare, riding a bike increases your life expectancy, and your children are safer outdoors than you were when you roamed the streets twenty or thirty years ago.

The events in the news are newsworthy only because they’re the exception, not the rule. They’re statistical outliers. Yet because we’re fed these stories daily, we think these things happen all of the time. As a result, we’re afraid to live normal lives.

I have a friend who’s reluctant to leave her home. Because she’s been assaulted in the past — an unfortunate event, but a statistically unlikely one — she lives in fear of being assaulted in the future. It’s true that by appearing in public, my friend runs the risk of being assaulted again. It’s far more likely, however, that doing things outside the house would bring her pleasure and fulfillment.

To some degree, each of us is like my friend — but not as extreme. We are all filled with fears, and these fears hold us back.

To live a richer, more fulfilling life — a life without regret — you must first overcome your fears. You can start by exposing yourself to new experiences, by interacting with your environment and allowing it to change you.

It all begins with the power of “yes”.

The Power of Yes

[Impro cover]For a long time, I was afraid to try new things, to meet new people, to do anything that might lead to failure. These fears confined me to a narrow comfort zone. I spent most of my time at home, reading books or playing videogames. When opportunities came to try new things, I usually ignored them. I made excuses. I wasn’t happy, but I was complacent. I was safe.

Then I read a book called Impro by Keith Johnstone. It changed my life. (Fun trivia: Here’s where I learned about the book.)

Impro is a book about stage-acting, about improvisational theater, the kind of stuff you used to see on the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? I’m not an actor, nor do I want to become one, but several of the techniques described in the book were applicable to my everyday life.

In one section, for example, the author explains that in order for a scene to flow, an actor has to take whatever situation arises and work with it. She needs to accept and build upon the actions of her fellow actors.

Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer interrupt the action. […] This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theater. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.

I thought about this passage for days. “What if I did this in real life?” I wondered. “What if I accepted offers and stopped blocking them?” I began to note the things I blocked and accepted. To my surprise, I blocked things constantly – I made excuses to not do things because I was afraid of what might happen if I accepted.

  • When online acquaintances asked to meet for lunch. I’d refuse. I was scared they might think I was fat or stupid. (Or that they might be an axe murderer!)
  • When a local television station asked me to appear on their morning show as a financial expert, I was afraid of looking like a fool, so I refused.
  • When a friend wanted me to join him to watch live music at a local pub, I declined. I’d never been in a bar (yes, I’d led a sheltered life) and was nervous about what might happen.
  • When another friend asked me to bike with him from Portland to the Oregon Coast, I said no. It was a long way. It seemed difficult and dangerous.

These are only a handful of examples. In reality, I blocked things every day. I refused to try new foods. I didn’t like to go new places. And I didn’t want to try new things. Or, more precisely, I wanted to do all of this, but was afraid to try. My default response was to find reasons something couldn’t be done instead of ways to make them happen. Because I focused more on possible negative outcomes than potential rewards, I avoided taking even tiny risks.

After reading Impro, I made a resolution. Instead of saying “no” to the things that scared me, I’d say “yes” instead.

Whenever somebody asked me to do something, I agreed (as long as it wasn’t illegal and didn’t violate my personal code of conduct). I put this new philosophy into practice in lots of ways, both big and small.

  • When people asked me to lunch, I said yes.
  • When people contacted me to make media appearances or do public speaking gigs, I said yes.
  • When friends asked me to go see their favorite bands or to spend the evening chatting at a bar, I said yes.

As a result of my campaign to “just say yes”, I’ve met hundreds of interesting people and done lots of amazing things. I’ve eaten guinea pig in Perú and grubs in Zimbabwe. I’ve climbed mountains in Bolivia and snorkeled in Ecuador. I’ve learned to love both coffee and beer, two beverages I thought I hated. I’ve learned to ride a motorcycle. I’ve shot a gun. I’ve gone skydiving and bungie-jumping. I published a book. I sold my website (and bought it back again!). I wrote a monthly column in a major magazine.

These things might seem minor to natural extroverts, but I’m not a natural extrovert. I’m an introvert. These were big steps for me. These experiences were new and scary, and I wouldn’t have had them if I hadn’t forced myself to say yes.

In recent years, I’ve come to look at saying “yes” like playing the lottery. Every time I do something new, there’s a chance I’ll win big. Let me explain.

The Lottery of Life

My work nowadays involves meeting and chatting with folks from all walks of life. They email me to say, “Want to have lunch?” and I say, “Of course!” We talk about podcasts or travel or bicycling or comic books. Whatever strikes our fancy. When we’ve finished our tea or Thai noodles, nothing seems to have happened — not on the outside, anyhow.

What’s happened, though, is that we’ve both received lottery tickets. By meeting and chatting and sharing ideas, we’ve been given tickets in the lottery of life.

I also get a ticket whenever I try something new. (Because I now try new things all of the time, I’m accumulating a lot of lottery tickets.)

I get tickets when I say “yes” to things that are scary or difficult too. When I spoke at World Domination Summit in 2012 — something that scared the hell out of me! — I got a lottery ticket. When I flew to Ecuador to talk with people about Financial Independence, I got a lottery ticket. When I introduce myself to strangers or “important people”, I get a lottery ticket.

But note that these tickets are rarely handed to me. To get them, I have to take risks. I have to move outside my comfort zone. As much as I enjoy sitting on the couch in the evening watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Kim, neither one of us receives a lottery ticket for doing so. To get tickets, we have to do things.

[Shaman cleaning

The prizes in life’s lottery are many and varied.

When I learned Spanish, for instance, I received a winning lottery ticket that has paid off in all sorts of ways. I made new friends (my tutor, my English student), traveled to new places (Perú, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador), read new authors, tried new food, watched new movies, and so much more.

When I was in Quito a couple of years ago, I rode the teleférico, the cable-car that carries visitors 4000 feet up the side of a nearby volcano. During the fifteen-minute ride, I chatted with two couples that spoke only Spanish. If I hadn’t learned Spanish, I couldn’t have understood them, much less conversed. But because I do speak Spanish, I enjoyed a pleasant chat about one couple’s life in Venezuela and the other couple’s life in Quito. Plus I garnered a restaurant recommendation for later that evening. Yet another small prize I won simply because I took the time to learn another language.

[The teleferico in Quito]

That’s an example of receiving a small payoff from the lottery of life. Sometimes, however, you hit the jackpot.

In 2008, I received an email from a blog reader. He’d be in Portland the following week and wanted to know if I had time to meet for lunch. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s do it.” I met the reader and his wife at a local Thai restaurant. We had a great conversation. I was impressed by his story and his drive. I gave him blogging tips. He told me stories about traveling the world. His wife showed me how to stretch my injured hamstring.

Over the next year, my new friend shared a couple of guest posts at Get Rich Slowly. He stayed at my house one night when he got stranded in Portland.

Eventually, this guy — whose name was Chris Guillebeau — moved to Portland. Our friendship grew. In 2010, I joined Chris for a train ride from Chicago to Portland. On that trip, he shared a crazy idea. “I want to create a conference and hold it in Portland. I want you to be on the planning team,” he said. For the next three years, I helped to organize the World Domination Summit, which grew into a grand party for 3000 people.

Saying “yes” to lunch with one stranger had a ripple effect that continues to spread throughout my entire life. Because of that one action, I’ve met hundreds of incredible people, some of whom have become close friends. I’ve traveled to Norway. I’ve spoken on stage before one thousand people. Chris and I collaborated to create the Get Rich Slowly course. (And the payoff continues: I’ll be presenting a three-hour workshop on Financial Freedom at this July’s edition of WDS.)

Not every meeting or experience pays off so handsomely, of course. In fact, some are disasters! But most provide some sort of reward, and sometimes those rewards are enormous. Prize-winning tickets are so common and fruitful, in fact, that I’ve almost become addicted to playing the lottery of life. I relish making new acquaintances, going new places, and trying new things.

I used to think I was unlucky. Good things happened to other people, never to me. Everyone else had more fun than I did. Now, eight years since learning to say “yes” to life, I know the truth. Success breeds success. When you do something well, you open doors to new opportunities. When you fail to act, doors remain closed.

Wishing won’t make you happy or wealthy, and good things don’t just happen. Luck is no accident. Luck isn’t magic and it’s not a gift from the gods. You make your own luck.

Luck Is No Accident

What we think of as “luck” has almost nothing to with randomness and almost everything to do with attitude. According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, only about ten percent of life is truly random; the remaining ninety percent is defined by the way we think. Wiseman says we have more control over our lives — and our luck — than we realize.

John Krumboltz and Al Levin, the authors of Luck is No Accident, agree. In that book, they write:

You have control over your own actions and how you think about the events that impact your life. None of us can control the outcomes, but your actions can increase the probability that desired outcomes will occur. There are no guarantees in life. The only guarantee is that doing nothing will get you nowhere.

This has certainly been true in my own life. When I sat at home, afraid to do things and meet people, I was “unlucky”. Once I took action, my fortunes changed.

Wiseman says that “lucky” people share four attributes:

  • Lucky people make the most of opportunity. This is more than just being in the right place at the right time. Lucky people must be aware when an opportunity presents itself, and they must have the courage to seize it.
  • Lucky people listen to their hunches. They heed their gut instincts.
  • Lucky people expect good fortune. They’re optimistic. They think win-win. They make positive choices that benefit themselves and others. They tend to assume the best.
  • Lucky people turn bad luck into good. They fail forward, learning from their mistakes and finding the silver lining in every cloud. There’s a Spanish saying, “No hay mal que por bien no venga,” which can be roughly translated as, “There is no bad from which good could not come.” Lucky people believe this.

In Impro, Keith Johnstone writes:

People with dull lives often think their lives are dull by chance. In reality, everyone chooses more or less what kind of events happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking or yielding.

This, my friends, is truth — perhaps the fundamental truth.

Our attitudes produce our luck. Choice is the backbone of life and meaning. This theme will appear repeatedly at Money Boss, and not just when discussing luck and fear.

At the heart of happiness is choice. We make meaning in our lives through our choices. At its core, freedom is about the ability to choose. And our financial states — for good or ill — are largely defined by choice.

Everyone chooses more or less what kind of events happen to them. Learn this quote. Learn to love it. Because you already live it, whether you know it or not.

Allow me to pause for a moment to acknowledge that yes, some people enjoy better circumstances than others. Systemic poverty is a genuine problem. It’s a barrier that some people have to overcome in order to achieve success. And yes, shit happens. You could get hit by a truck tomorrow. To me, these things are obvious and should go without saying. Yet, if I don’t explicitly mention them, I’ll get nasty comments and email.

Action Cures Fear

Saying “yes” is the first step to fighting fear and living a life without regret. But saying “yes” isn’t enough by itself. To cure fear, you must also take action.

Cody is a personal trainer in Portland, Oregon. He coaches athletes to lift more and run farther than they believe they’re able. Cody says one key to achieving peak performance is acting in spite of fear.

When lifting weights, for instance, many athletes — especially novices — become intimidated. They may be physically capable of living a given weight (and may have even lifted that very weight in the past), but they’re afraid to do so; they think about what might happen if they drop the bar. Others might imagine the pain and suffering that comes from running a marathon, the long hours of work ahead, and allow those thoughts to stop them from attempting the race.

Cody says that successful athletes overcome their fear by turning off their brains and taking action. Instead of waiting for the moment when fear subsides — a moment that might never come if she keeps thinking about it — the veteran forces herself not to think about what she’s doing. She simply does it. She lifts the weight or scales the wall or dives into the pool. She keeps running and doesn’t think about the distance that remains.

DSC_4567   DSC_4289

At the start of the classic science-fiction novel Dune, our young hero is put to a painful test. To calm himself and focus his mind, he recites this litany against fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

If fear is the mind-killer, then action is the fear-killer. To overcome fear, you must reach a point where you’re no longer thinking — only acting. Thought creates fear; action cures it.

Cody’s insight isn’t new. Motivational speaker Brian Tracy has said, “If you want to develop courage, then simply act courageously when it’s called for. If you do something over and over again, you develop a habit. Some people develop the habit of courage. Some people develop the habit of non-courage.” (Tracy’s famous advice for doing what you fear? Eat that frog!)

In The Magic of Thinking Big, David J. Schwartz writes, “Action cures fear. Indecision, postponement, on the other hand, fertilize fear…When we face tough problems, we stay mired in the mud until we take action. Hope is a start. But hope needs action to win victories.”

Schwartz advocates a two-step plan to build confidence and destroy fear:

  1. Isolate your fear. Determine exactly what it is that scares you.
  2. Take action. Figure out what action will counter your fear, and then do it.

“Hesitation only enlarges, magnifies the fear,” Shwartz writes. “Take action promptly. Be decisive.”

Often what we’re actually afraid of is the unknown. We like certainty, and choosing to do something with an uncertain outcome makes us nervous. That initial step into the unknown can be scary. But after the first, each subsequent step becomes easier and easier. When you act, you remove the mystery.

For years, I was frightened to speak in front of crowds. I avoided it. And when I agreed to speak, I put off preparation until the last possible moment. But when I began to say “yes” to offers and opportunities, I had to learn to speak in front of crowds. At first, I didn’t like it. But over time a funny thing happened. The more talks I gave, the better I got — and the more I enjoyed it. I’m still not great at it, but my fear fades a little more each time I step on stage. Action is curing my fear.

Action Creates Motivation

At home, 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 back in Portland). The first few minutes suck. I’m tempted to turn around and return to my cozy bedroom. Before long, however, I find I’m actually enjoying myself. I return home invigorated, eager to get things done.

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.

You see, action primes the pump. It creates momentum. It instills confidence.

Another way to boost confidence is careful preparation. 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. You rehearse possible situations. You practice the required actions. You allow your imagination to explore (and cope with) worst-case scenarios. Preparation helps 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 fear fades into the background.

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 was 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. Superman is a superhero because he does heroic things, not because he talks about doing them.

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 is Character

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 seven years. For most of that time, I have been fit. I’ve eaten well and exercised often. But during the past couple of years, my attention has been focused elsewhere. My priorities have shifted. During my RV trip across the U.S., I 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 do the work to become (and remain) 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.

Summing Up

Whew! That’s a lot of information. Let’s summarize what we’ve learned today.

  • 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, dying people regret having been afraid.
  • 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 like 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 hit the jackpot.
  • Saying yes isn’t enough by itself. To cure fear, you must take action. Action boosts confidence. So does preparation. When we’re prepared, we feel competent. When we feel competent, we feel confident. When we’re confident, fear fades into the background.
  • If you always do your best and you do what’s right, then you needn’t fear the results. Sure, bad things will sometimes happen. 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.
  • The bottom line? Action is character. You are defined by the things you do — not by the things you think or say. 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. We’ll talk about what happiness is, how it’s achieved, and what you can do to maximize happiness in your life. Because happiness too is an important part of achieving personal and financial freedom.


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