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How to tell if you're doing your life's work

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I am working on a small book right now. It’s easily the best thing I’ve ever done.

The editor is better than I could have ever hoped for. The idea is amazing, and something I care deeply about. It should get good visibility. Everything seems like it’s in line.

This kind of thing never happens to me. It probably rarely happens to you.

So, naturally, I’m paralyzed with fear.

This is how the whole world works. When you’re on auto-pilot, no problem. You’ve done it before, so you recognize every pattern you’re in and there’s no need to worry.

But this also means you’re going the wrong way. You’re getting no new input, so you’re not recognizing any new patterns. If this is the way your life is going, you are actually actually becoming more useless. In an increasingly chaotic world, the best pattern recognizers win.

So the way to have an amazing life is to be constantly fearing failure, but driving forward anyway. It’s  difficult to be doing this all the time. You need to pick your battles. Most things need to be stable and allow for safety, so you can focus on these one or two very difficult things.

In other words, your relationship can’t be in shambles while you’re building a business. This is natural, and it’s how the whole world works. You need to have the energy to spend where it matters.

So your whole world should be a cycle of balancing and unbalancing, contraction and growth. Imagine weight lifting. The more stable you are, the heavier you can lift.

I suspect that those who can do many things at once aren’t actually doing anything properly. They commit to numerous ideas and try to deliver on all of them, but none end up exceptional. They’re blogging every day but few ideas are truly interesting or have much of a wide spread.

This is how someone like me can end up not blogging for a month. I focus on one thing and make it happen in the best way possible. Afterwards, I’m drained. I have to do something else– anything else– but worry about delivering new ideas.

So today, for the first time in a long time, I feel kind of free. The project feels 90% done. A great weight is lifted off my shoulders and I have energy to deliver in other places.

If you are not doing your life’s work, you will feel perfectly comfortable. There will be an occasional malaise as you wonder if there’s “more” out there, but you won’t know exactly what to do.

What you need to do is become paralyzed with fear.

If you aren’t paralyzed, you aren’t going far enough. If you don’t feel yourself being avoidant, you’re probably settling. This is normal. Your brain wants you to be safe. Your body is built to procreate and die, not thrive. Naturally, facing pain will feel horrible and unnatural. It can’t be any other way. It feels like a threat, and threats must be stopped.

In order to get anywhere in life, you need to be uncomfortable constantly. You need to have new input and absorb new information or you’re not growing. If you don’t want to grow, it’s because things are fine as they are. You should be conscious and ok with the fact that they won’t change.

So do you want to be bigger? If yes, then you know what you have to do. If no, keep moving along.

Postscript: As I wrote this post, an email came in, and once again I’m paralyzed with fear. I must be on the right track. Back to work.

* Filed by Julien at 10:06 am under clear thinking, direction, risk, taking action


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

Check out more of my blog, my free book or add me on twitter. Also, we're hiring. Check that out.

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10 Responses to “How to tell if you're doing your life's work”

  1. Cyberquill Says:

    Paralyzed with fear is good? So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying life should be a horror movie.

  2. Tessa Horehled Says:

    I completely agree with these sentiments. The trick is finding and creating the platform for these opportunities! Look forward to hearing more about the book.

  3. Susan Murphy Says:

    Thank you, my friend, for once again putting into words what I’ve been feeling these past few weeks.

    Now I know I’m on the right track. :)

  4. mykel dixon Says:

    Great post.

    I was fricken terrified earlier this year, but instead of running through the fire I tried to make everything safer, a sure thing, guaranteed success.
    And the safer I tried to make it, the scarier life became. So I went numb, auto-pilot etc

    6 weeks ago it hit me, I sold my studio, booked a one way ticket to anywhere and am currently in HK, on route to India before settling in Berlin.

    I’m only just beginning to realise that what I was searching for was actually what I was running from.
    And what I hope to find is what I already had.

    That is one crazy way to avoid your lifes work. Oops.

    Now I see fear as a compass of sorts. It’s points the way and can be celebrated and embraced.

    Thanks man, you provide so much with your output. Really appreciate it.

  5. Yvonne Says:

    I love this article. Thank you for writing it. I always enjoy a fresh perspective on things. I’ve always wanted to be an artist but ended up doing “left-brained” jobs my whole career because I was always told they were “safe”. Lately I’ve been spreading my wings in the art world a little just to see if I am still interested in it and have realized how much I miss the excitement of creating something beautiful and even useful. And when I’m being “artsy” I do feel that paralyzing fear because I’ve been away from it so long I’m afraid I’ve lost my creativity.

  6. Bijan Says:

    I read a lot. I speculate, but can’t confirm – this may have been one of the most valuable insights I’ve ever encountered.

  7. Jeff Says:

    Wow, this is some good shit. I really needed to hear this and your advice is spot on, cutting through the bullshit like a ninja. Thanks for that.

  8. Maria Says:

    What are you all saying? Do you know what would happen if all people persued their live’s work, rather than settle comfortably? Societies would break down, that’s what. How do you think communities, town’s, country’s would have ever been built? Who would have done all the labor?…a ton of individuals persuing their live’s work, or maybe the majority of them settling for what ever happiness they might benefit from helping create someone else’s vision. I want to believe we can all do that, but reality shows that only a chosen few actually can.

  9. Nikki Says:

    Ugh. I am stuck in so much fear right now with this new project I’m working on that I feel like I’m walking through quicksand. So thank you so much for this. It rings true and validates what I suspect somewhere deep down below all the noise: that I’m doing something worth doing.

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