This story may already be familiar to you, if you’ve been following my life and adventures for a while. But I make no apology for including it again, as it forms such an important part of my own journey towards courage.
I believe that you can’t develop courage in isolation. You can only develop courage in response to the challenges that life throws your way. You need the resistance in order to develop the muscle.
And sometimes – as in my case – courage starts out small. It starts with the feeling that there is something more to life, a sense that you’re settling for fine when you’d rather have amazing, an itch that needs to be scratched, an inkling of potential that needs to be tapped.
It’s how you respond to that inkling that matters. Are you going to turn your back on it, hoping it will go away and leave you to your nice, safe, okay life? Or are you going to find your courage, the courage to say, “I believe there IS more, and I’m going to find it”, the courage to aim for a less conventional kind of success, the courage to believe that life has special plans for you?
Enough preamble. Here’s my story.
The Perfect Life?
It’s the year 2000. I am 33 years old, and I seem to have the perfect life. I have a decent job as a management consultant, a nice home, and a little red sports car – a perfect picture of materialistic success.
In theory, I seem to have it all.
But do I, really? There seems to be a little thing missing, like, happiness.
I get up at six o’clock every weekday morning to catch the train to work. My husband and I sit in our usual seats in our usual train carriage, each reading our copies of The Telegraph, obviously not speaking to the other commuters, or each other – heaven forbid!
My favourite part of the newspaper is the obituaries. I’m fascinated by how people choose to live their lives. And of course, the ones who were interesting enough to get written up in the newspaper have, by definition, led lives that are extraordinary in some sense – soldiers, spies, adventurers, pioneers, campaigners and politicians. Their lives seem so colourful. Mine, by comparison, seems rather…. Not grey, it’s not as bad as that. Just rather vanilla. Nice, but nothing special. Certainly nothing worth an obituary in The Telegraph.
Time passes. I work, pay the bills, pay the mortgage, go on nice holidays to give me something to look forward to, seeing as I don’t particularly like the way I’m spending most of the rest of the year.
I carry on reading the obituaries in The Telegraph, and start wondering – why am I settling for this? My security is starting to feel suffocating. I’m getting obituary envy – what do those people have that I don’t? How come they got to lead such amazing lives when mine seems so ordinary? They seem almost like a different type of person, like they have something I don’t have, and could never have.
Or could I?
The Obituary Exercise
One day, I decide to play with this idea. I devise a very dangerous game. I decide to write my own obituary.
I do highly recommend this exercise, by the way. It gives you incredible clarity on what you want to do with your life, at the same time as reminding you that you don’t have forever to do it in. I hate to break it to you, but one day you’re going to die. And it was only when I really, fully, faced that fact – that I would die – that I actually started to live.
So what I do is, I sit down and write two versions of my obituary. The first is the one that I want to have. I think of those obituaries that I enjoy reading, the people that I admire. They are the adventurers and risk-takers, the people who live many lifetimes in one, the people who had try lots of things, some of them successes, some of them spectacular failures, but at least they have the courage to try.
The second version is the obituary that I am heading for – a conventional, ordinary life – pleasant and with its moments of excitement, but always within the safe confines of normality.
The difference between the two is startling. The difference between the two is courage, having the courage to be different and live the life that I really want to have.
I realise that I have been living my life from a position of fear – fear of being different, fear that I won’t be socially acceptable, fear that I won’t have enough money, fear that I will end up being like my parents, Methodist preachers with middle class standards but a working class income, scrimping and saving and eating cheap food and having holidays on caravan sites in Wales.
And you know what? When I am writing that fantasy obituary, based on the people I admire, those ones with courage…. It feels so real to me, so deeply authentic, that when I finish it I believe for a moment that it is true, that it is the life I am going to live.
And for a moment, I slip into a parallel universe. That life IS real. It is the life I am living. And it feels absolutely amazing.
But then the Inner Critic, the Saboteur, kicks in. Who are you? You’re not a leader, you’re a follower. You’re not a risk-taker, you play it safe. You’re not bold, you’re timid. You don’t have the courage to live like those people.
I crumple. I take those two obituaries and I put them away in a drawer, afraid of what I’ve glimpsed.
But you know what? Once you’ve seen your authentic self, the life you’re meant to be living, it’s just about impossible to pretend you haven’t seen it. The writing is on the wall. Like it or not, you’re going to have to do something about it.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
More next week! Meanwhile, please post a comment and tell me about the turning points in your life. Or, in fact, tell me about anything you want! You’ll notice that, as requested, I’ve added a plugin so you can subscribe to receive follow-up comments by email. So now we can really get a conversation going.