On ‘Fear Disguised As Practicality’

On all the stops on my book tour this year, I show a slide that’s a list of reasons people don’t do things: bad knees, mortgage, not enough vacation time, too old, et cetera. They’re things I’ve heard people say, or I’ve said myself at times, usually following a phrase like “I would love to do that, but …” or “I wish I could do ______, but …”

I don’t want to give away too much, but one of the themes of my book and the book tour is realizing the difference between a) a real reason we can or can’t do something and b) bullshit. Or figuring out that many of the stories we tell ourselves could, if we’re honest with ourselves, be translated into the same three words: “because I’m scared.”

Everyone has a list of things they theoretically would like to do: Raft through the Grand Canyon, do a weeklong motorcycle tour in Vietnam, start a blog.

And everyone has a list of “practical” reasons they can’t do all those things, too: I can’t take that much time off work. I don’t know how to ride a motorcycle. Writing a blog is a waste of time unless a ton of people read it and I can make money off it.

There are solutions to all those reasons you list: Ask your boss about something called “unpaid time off” (or just quit your job). Take a class on how to ride a motorcycle and get your license. Sell some of the stuff you don’t use or get a second part-time job for a few months.

There are no special people who are born with a magical ability to do bold things. There are, however, people who choose to look at challenges and find ways to do them, instead of talking themselves out of them. I have been lucky to meet dozens of these people in the outdoors and in creative work—people who are not sure if they can climb El Capitan or Denali, but try, or aren’t sure if they can make a short film or start a photography business, but go for it anyway.

A couple weeks ago at a climbing gym in Iowa, I climbed with a 71-year-old woman who started climbing indoors in her late 60s. Kitty climbs with mostly men in their 20s and 30s, because at her home gym, men in their 20s and 30s are most often available to belay. I watched her sail up a crimpy 5.10a/b route and a few others, and the only time she said the word “can’t” was when she was explaining the extensive warmup routine she does before she climbs—“I can’t just jump onto routes first thing like you young guys.”

If anybody communicated to Kitty that Iowan women in their late 60s don’t just take up rock climbing, she didn’t listen. Maybe she’s thought of a bunch of reasons she shouldn’t be trying to redpoint 5.10 routes, but hasn’t deemed any of them worthy enough to stop her from trying. Obviously the practical thing would be to take up something a bit more sedentary, like Sudoku or knitting—or to just say, “I’ve never climbed before, I’m in my late 60s, and I don’t know any rock climbers, so I can’t climb.” But of course she didn’t do that.

In his 2014 commencement speech at Maharishi University, actor Jim Carrey told graduates, “So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.” Meaning: We tell ourselves the right thing is the “responsible” thing, instead of the thing we dream of someday doing. We put a lot of effort into coming up with different reasons that sound better than saying “I can’t do it because I’m scared of what might happen if I tried.” It sounds practical, so we make ourselves comfortable with practical decisions.

Most people would never tell you that their dream in life is to be as practical and comfortable as possible, but we often end up striving for those things unconsciously. But no one writes an end-of-year holiday letter and brags, “every time I thought of something really cool I could do, I found a way to talk myself out of it so I could stay home instead: there was a marathon I didn’t sign up for in March because I didn’t think I had time to train, the family vacation we decided to put off for another year because we scheduled too many other activities over the summer, and the job I really hate going into every morning but stayed at for another year because I’m nervous about interviewing for a more challenging job.”

Plenty of people on this planet don’t have the privilege to choose between practical and impractical, but if you are fortunate enough to be in a position to dream of things that scare you a little bit, consider the real source of your anxiety about a big idea.

Obviously free-soloing Moonlight Buttress or trying to climb K2 solo in the winter is a different story when you have a family at home. But when it’s something like “I’d love to hike the John Muir Trail/climb Mt. Rainier/write a screenplay but I have too much other stuff going on this year/I’m redoing our basement/I’m not one of the people who does big bold things like that,” you might ask:

Am I really being practical, or am I just scared?


More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.

17 replies on “On ‘Fear Disguised As Practicality’

  • doug moore

    Busted. Again.

    Thanks for preaching this message Brendan. Keep it coming in what ever format you can think of.

    The world can only get better if it motivates people to drop the fear and take a leap of faith.

  • Zach

    Perfectly said. I try to explain this exact same thing to people every day. Quit making excuses and just go for it! Well done Brendan

  • Leigh McClurg

    You never hear of babies trying to walk and continually falling over eventually saying “you know what, walking isn’t for me, I’m just born to be a crawler”.

    Trying and learning are all part of the process of life. “How have you grown this week?” should be a normal conversation between adults.

  • Jeremy

    My response when people come up with an excuse and say “I can’t” is “of course you can’t, not with that attitude”. Amazingly when people actually try something new they usually can.

  • Tiger

    Its like my soul wrote this. Work says I can’t take 4 months off to explore Alaska next summer and climb Danali? No big deal I’ll quit my job. And just because one has a family doesn’t mean one shouldn’t climb K2. Instead of not attempting K2 because I have a son I will climb K2 after he turns 18 and I know he can take care of himself. In the meantime I’ll work toward it with other climbing goals the next few years. I’ve been fascinated with K2 since I was 10. It would be easy to find an excuse not too, but I choose to find a way to make it happen 🙂

  • Tom

    You certainly have a knack for getting to the heart of an issue; nicely written!
    Kitty recommended I read your blog; I was her first climbing partner and we still climb together often. I overcame my fear of heights to start climbing seven years ago and feel even better about my internal struggle and determination to “try something new” after reading your “Fear Disguised as Practicality”.
    By the way, I’ll be 70 in a couple of months.

  • Craig

    Thanks for the inspiration. My wife and I are driving from Wisconsin to Alaska and will take as long as we want.

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