Last week I talked about the importance of recognizing the “life scripts” we’re surrounded by as a crucial first step toward ditching the script to chart your own path. If you want to live creatively, you have to step off the ledge into the unknown.
About that stepping off part…
It’s not just that it’s terrifying. Sure, it’s scary to take a massive risk and ditch a “safer” script.
It’s not just that it’s uncertain. Sure, if you’re pursuing a creative pursuit, by definition you’re embracing long odds for material success.
You’ll also just feel like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. You’ll feel like a newborn foal trying to run the Kentucky Derby blindfolded. Everyone you know is in the stands, and they’re not all betting in your favor.
I’m not a natural risk-taker, and ditching the script and building a life centered around creativity was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever undertaken. I felt like I was taking on a monumental risk without an instruction manual. But I did it, and I can now share some things I’ve learned.
It’s not easy. You have to find courage. Here are some things that can help.
When you embark on a big change and a creative pursuit like a book project or starting your own business, you have absolutely no idea how it’s going to end up.
But more than that, you’re ditching old structures in your life that gave you a sense of order and certainty (however illusory “certainty” is in life entirely). You might be ditching voices of authority that you deferred decisions to and embracing being the one who decides your fate. You’re living according to what you want, and knowing what you want isn’t always easy to figure out.
At the end of my post on stepping off the script, I compared it to switching off the auto-pilot and flying the plane yourself. What that means in practice is that you suddenly have to make every decision and constantly hold yourself accountable. You won’t have a boss looking over your shoulder. The book you’re writing won’t yell at you for being late.
And rather than having a sense of your life’s trajectory (in X years I’ll ask for a promotion, in Y years I’ll get married), your conception of the future will suddenly blur into a confusing morass of positive and negative outcomes.
Essentially, what happens is that your ideas about the future will collapse into the present, where you’ll face a blizzard of new decisions. It can feel massively disorienting.
You have to embrace this uncertainty and take ownership over your choices. Nothing was really certain about the old path anyway, it just seemed that way.
You might start off feeling like that unsteady foal, but you’ll find your legs and gain confidence as you go along. I also highly recommend this book for learning how to lean into the resulting discomfort: Comfortable With Uncertainty by Pema Chodron.
Redefine success and failure
Shedding the script also means shedding traditional markers of what it means to succeed or fail. If you’re going to step off the script to reorganize your life around creativity, you’re also probably going to need to reframe how you view your own success and failure.
You have a lifetime of internalizing how “success” is defined by our culture via advertising, traditional media, social media, etc.: above all, that success is about financial wealth, whether in the form of an ostentatious lifestyle, a prestigious job title, jet setting, arm candy, you name it.
And if we take a big leap and it doesn’t go well–if the book doesn’t sell, if the business fails–we might fear returning to life with our tail between our legs.
When I was working on what became Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, I felt so much fear I didn’t even tell anyone I was writing it. What if it crashed and burned and I had to see disappointment on my behalf reflected in everyone’s faces?
The transition you have to make is to shift as much as possible from external markers of success to internal validation. Success, in this case, means deriving satisfaction from the mere fact of pursuing your dreams. Failure means giving in to the status quo and a lifetime of “what if”s if you never make the leap.
Sure. You need to make ends meet somehow, so discounting all external validation would be foolhardy. And all of this is easier said than done. But if your marker of success is the mere fact that you’re pursuing a creative project or organizing your life in a way that prioritizes the things you truly care about, you can’t help but succeed.
And guess what: however much our cultural tastemakers and social media algorithms valorize wealth, actual human beings tend to admire people who chart their own course.
Stepping off the script doesn’t have to mean lighting a stick of dynamite and blowing up your entire life. There are certainly people who embrace this kind of creative destruction and those who are perfectly happy flying by the seat of their pants, but I’m not one of them. I don’t believe in leaping before looking.
In order to plan ahead for a big change to carve out the time for a creative project or starting a business, some solid planning will help give you the confidence you need to ease into a new life in a way that doesn’t mean completely destroying what you liked about your old one.
The formula here isn’t revolutionary. There are only so many hours in a week, and you need to devote enough to your creative project to complete it in a satisfactory length of time. You can lock in your “must dos” like family and friends, and work around the margins. You have to bring in enough money to cover your expenses and hopefully have a bit of a safety net for the unexpected.
If you’re starting a business, you might need to give yourself some runway to build up your income. You can test the waters with a product or service in your spare time to give yourself more confidence that what you’re planning will work.
But be careful here. Planning and waters-testing will only get you so far. It’s easy to paralyze yourself thinking you need still-more security and still-more certainty before you jump. It’s never going to feel comfortable.
Do plan, but don’t dither in the planning phase either. At some point you just have to leap.
Shed your anchors
When you step off the script in life, it can feel pretty chilly out on that ledge. Chances are your previous self performed a valuable function in someone else’s life. So before you leap, you’ll likely experience fear from those around you, who worry that their “deal” with you will change.
See this fear for what it is, and be careful not to internalize it in a way that feeds your self-doubt. You may need to reassure loved ones that their needs will be met and you’ll live up to your commitments. Other relationships might need to be redrawn or discarded entirely.
That’s because stepping off the script to pursue a creative life is an all hands on deck situation. You need every ounce of energy you have to make it all work, particularly when you’re first getting started. You can’t afford drags on your psyche: unhealthy relationships, time sucks, out of control vices.
Now, I don’t mean you should consign everything in your previous life to the dustbin, but you may need to set new boundaries, get better at saying “no,” and develop self-discipline to resist the time and energy sucks that hold you back.
Pay close attention to the energy around you. Lean into what feeds you, and try to shed what’s holding you back.
Surround yourself with guides
When I made the leap a few years back, it helped immensely that I had friends who were entrepreneurs and successful writers who had already stepped off the script. I craved being around people who were charting their own course in life, and I absorbed their lessons, their confidence, and their impatience with me to just make the leap already and join them on the unscripted life.
Chances are there are people in your life who have already walked some of the trails you’re contemplating exploring, and their presence and insights are invaluable. Embrace them!
And here’s the thing about going off the script: chances are you’ll need more help than you used to. You might not be used to asking for assistance, but it’s a crucial mindset. There are people around you who will be happy to help, but you have to ask.
Stepping off the script is still the ultimate bet on yourself. You’re not hedging and giving up your time and energy for other people, you’re pursuing something that will come to fruition based on your own efforts. Accordingly, it’s also the ultimate reward.
Yes, it’s scary to embrace that mantle, but here’s the thing: you’re more adaptable than you probably think you are.
Stepping off the script doesn’t just mean that you’re betting that your dream is going to pay off and precisely follow your best case scenarios. It’s a bet that you’ll figure it out as you go along. Trust your instincts.
Your creative project or your creative life might not work on the first, second, or fifth iteration, but if you stay true to your ultimate vision, if you keep adapting as you go along, and if you keep shedding your anchors and leaning into what works, you’ll get there.
At some point you just have to leap. But I have never met a single person who has regretted writing a book or taking a risk to pursue a personal dream. At the end of the day, it’s probably not as big of a leap as it looks, and in fact, the real risk is getting stuck on the ledge just staring at what might be possible.
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Art: Winslow Homer – Jumping Trout