live boldly: on [not] doing that thing you most want to do.
Let me set a quick scene for you: It’s 11am on the day of an essay contest’s deadline, and the lump in your chest is that delightful combination of panic and writer’s block.
Not just any contest, but for the Book Passage travel writers and photographers conference – an event you’ve been looking forward to all summer.
Never mind that you’ve had the entire aforementioned summer to write the essay – the fact is that all you have right now is that glaring blank screen in front of you, and exactly nine hours to fill it.
* * *
So it was that I found myself two weeks ago, strapped to my desk, horrified that I’d waited until the last minute for something so important.
The hours leading up to the deadline ticked by faster than they do for a kid on the last day of summer. For every sentence I squeezed out, I had to stop – for a goodbye lunch with my cousin, for a pedicure with my mother (because that’s how we roll), and then, at 7.45 that night – fifteen minutes before the essay was due – to see why I could hear my sister crying downstairs.
Everything, it seemed, kept getting in my way – and yet the biggest thing determined to stop me was myself.
I found fault in every word, in every phrase. I felt like I kept missing the point, like the story was going nowhere. I had no idea what I was trying to say. At 8pm, I had exactly half the essay written.
“It’s not happening,” I told my family, feeling more relief than defeat at that moment.
“Get back upstairs,” my mother said, unforgiving. “You’re going to finish it.”
And so it was that two hours later, I finally sent the darned thing off with a pleading apology to the conference organizer for it having been a “hectic week,” when really, the only thing hectic about it was my own ridiculousness.
I glanced at the essay occasionally over the next few days, trying to balance out thoughts of, What the heck was I thinking?, with a marginally more encouraging, I guess it’s not so bad after all. But I mostly tried to pretend it’d never happened.
Out of sight, out of mind, right?
* * *
Now let me set a different scene for you – it’s 2pm on the last day of the conference and time for the annual “Suitcase Awards.” The photography contest winners are announced first, then Don George – author of the Lonely Planet guide to travel writing who has had a huge influence on me as a writer – takes the stage for the essay contest.
“We had a lot of strong entries this year,” Don starts off saying, “so much so that we’ve decided to highlight six of them.”
Three honorable mentions are called out, then third place, then second. As each name is revealed, my heart races a little bit more – mainly because my name hasn’t been called. And it isn’t for first place either, not yet anyways. All Don reads is the title of the winning essay.
By which point my heart isn’t racing – it’s actually stopped. Because it’s the very same title I’d hastily come up with one week earlier.
For the next fifteen minutes, as Don George himself reads out my essay in front of the conference, my emotions run in circles – from take-that-stupid-grin-off-your-face happiness to omg-I-think-I’m-going-to-cry disbelief back to bliss.
It was the highlight to end a weekend full of highlights.
But here’s my point:
There was a question I’d been asking myself all weekend – what if I hadn’t come? – and in the final hours of the conference, it took on a slightly different shape – what if I hadn’t entered the contest?
In both cases, though, the question I was really asking was: What if I had let fear win? Fear of putting myself out there, fear of meeting editors I respect and admire and want to work with.
Fear of being in a place where my dreams might take one more step towards becoming my reality.
And I suppose that’s why I wanted to share this story with you – not to say, “Hey! I won some essay contest,” but to show you, “Hey! Here’s how I almost didn’t win an essay contest.” Because what meant the most to me about the entire experience was not walking up front after Don read my piece, but knowing what I’d worked through to get there.
Sometimes the easiest thing in the world is to not do the thing we most want to do, because inaction will always feel safer than action. Why risk failure and disappointment when our comfort zone is oh so comfy and warm?
What is that thing for you? The thing that terrifies you, but also excites you?
Maybe it’s that little plan you’ve always had in the back of your mind to move somewhere else. To New York, or San Francisco, or another country altogether. Maybe it’s your first solo trip, or a charity you’ve wanted to start, or a blog you’d like to set up. Maybe – like Book Passage was for me – it’s a conference you want to attend, that could open crazy, unthinkable doors for you.
My friend Lindsay recently posted a quote on her blog from the poet Ted Hughes, a quote so perfectly relevant that I have to share it here too:
“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
Let’s make a pact to live boldly – a pact to follow our fears – because they just might be pointing to what we most want in life.