Out of the Box

“The further you get away from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is great fun.”

~Benedict Cumberbatch

There are plenty of people out there that like to stick to their plans, never deviating from the precise details they spent so much time working out – and that is definitely one way to go about things. Hell, I spent a lot of my life following that pattern; I accomplished exactly what I set out to achieve.

Yay.

If that’s all you want – the success of a job well done – then, by all means, keep to the paved path. However, if you want to flex your muscles even the tiniest bit, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and set some challenges. I don’t mean goals (you do need those, of course) – I mean out-of-the-box, out of your comfort zone, risky challenges. These are steps that still coincide with your ultimate dream, but they’re not on that careful map you worked so hard on. They involve a stretch of your creativity, and they’re probably scary (in fact, the more they scare you, the better). Those kind of challenges.

You want your blood pumping.

Why? Because, ultimately, those challenges make you a stronger person. They push you to grow beyond the boundaries you thought you had (crazy when you discover how far you can really go), and they teach you skills you never imagined you were capable of.

Maybe you’ve only ever written fantasy or literary fiction. This time, you sit down to try something new, a strange idea you’d never consider normally because it’s not what “you’re known for.” Did you know you could write that level of horror?

You help tinker around with electronics every day, and you can repair just about anything someone hands you. You have endless boxes of parts and equipment stacked up in your garage, collecting dust, so you decide to go through them, just to see what’s there. Did you imagine you could assemble an entire computer from scratch?

Whenever you’re bored, you putter around in the kitchen. You’ve made cookies dozens of times, and you can bake a mean cupcake – everyone tells you this on a regular basis. You’ve never attempted anything “significant,” though because you’re just a home baker. Did you have any idea you could bake a tiered cake with your own two hands?

You love attending cons, and you marvel at the ingenuity in the people around you; they’re so talented. You wish you had more to offer than your comic t-shirts and cat ear-headband. You’ve glued some foam together before, but you’ve never even touched a sewing machine. Did you realize you could sew a unique costume from a design in your head?

Stop sitting in the box!

Yeah, the outside of the box is unknown territory, and the challenge is as daunting as scaling a mountain. The feeling you get when you reach the peak, though…nothing feels that good. You amaze yourself, and you start to wonder more, to ask yourself more questions.

“If I did this, what else can I do?”

Suddenly, your checklist of dreams gains color and depth, and it becomes even better than it was before. Those challenges drive you forward in a way you wouldn’t believe. They have a way of silencing doubt and bolstering confidence. Yes, you have to overcome the shivers and hesitation each time, but the risk is worth it. I challenge myself with my writing all the time: can I handle this topic? Should I pitch this article? Maybe I should try setting this in this genre? The rewards have paid off each time, and my writing has continued to improve. If I hadn’t challenged myself, I wouldn’t have some of the contracts I do, I’d only have a handful of insipid short stories, and I wouldn’t have half of the novels I’m working on. I would have hamstrung myself.

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and then think of something just outside of reach, something that scares you. Then go do it.

Never Ever Stop

Image by J Garget from Pixabay

Things are always easiest when they’re rolling along smoothly – no one doubts that. When you can check boxes, climb rungs on the ladder, or even just cruise along down the freshly-paved sidewalk with a smile, you feel good and the world is at it’s brightest. It would be amazing if life stayed that way, but the universe has entropy at its heart (and no one is that lucky, regardless of what they might tell you).

Enter the complication.

You end up staring at something you can’t check off the list. The rung snaps under your fingers (or, worse, your feet). An earthquake breaks the sidewalk in front of you, leaving a chasm. You’re left feeling down-trodden, miserable, defeated, and all you want to do is circle back around and go home to hide in a blanket fort. While I am a big fan and supporter of the blanket fort, they aren’t the answer. Life doesn’t persist and continue or become interesting in a blanket fort – not for more than a couple of hours. You have to keep moving forward if you want to reclaim that high of accomplishment and success.

You have to persevere in the face of adversity.

Of course it’s hard, and sure, no one ever enjoys pushing against obstacles. It requires work, you’re going to sweat (sometimes literally), and you’re going to need a hefty dose of motivation – constant, driving motivation from deep inside yourself. Every day, every moment, you have to grit your teeth (maybe not literally – that’s bad for your jaw) and push forward. That obstacle isn’t going anywhere unless you do, and until you remove the impediment, you won’t make any progress toward your goals, your dreams, or even just your everyday life.

Perseverance comes in a lot of different forms, all depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe it’s continuing to write, edit, and submit your work for publication – refining your style and voice with the notes you receive in response. Maybe it’s marketing your particular skill set to potential employers/clients in order to obtain contracts, adjusting your pitch to attract the highest quality and most beneficial work. Perhaps it’s practicing speaking in front of a mirror until your voice no longer shakes so you can stand up to someone, demanding a right you’ve earned. Or it could even be something as simple as getting up every single day and reading five pages of a guide or manual for something you’re interested in. Forward momentum is still momentum, and it’ll get you across the chasm when you build up enough speed.

You just have to be willing to keep going.

In the face of thankless work (the finish line is likely still miles down the road – this is just a hurdle), with detractors on the sidelines, and with the knowledge that future obstacles are going to arise, you have to be willing to keep going. How important is your dream? Your goal? Your happiness? If it’s worth it, you’ll find it easier to persevere against the brick walls, and you will get through them.

Write It, Mean it

“Aim higher in case you fall short.”

~Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

So we’ve set out our dreams, and we have that finish line clear in our minds. Odds are even fair that you have some goals in mind that will provide the rungs on the ladder you need to ascend the pedestal to achieve that dream (at least, I hope you aren’t one of those people sitting on the floor and expecting the dream to just fall in your lap). A reasonable checklist is perfect, and it breaks down the journey into manageable “bites” that makes that dream feel achievable. But there’s a critical problem people tend to forget when they set goals:

They leave those goals in their head.

I have a great memory (not bragging, just stating a clear fact), but even I lose things into a black hole at times. Guess which things are usually the first to go? Everything really important – like that super-important checklist of goals I worked so hard on. (You know that super-safe place you put things in and then promptly forget? Same concept) It’s self-sabotage at it’s best, and you end up shrugging and waving at your dream.

I’m not advocating you share your goals on social media, because I’m not – that’s stupid. Never share your goals with other people. People will sabotage you, too, especially if you start doing well. Share your goals AFTER you’ve accomplished them, when people can’t do anything to interfere. However, you have to get the checklist out of your brain and commit it to reality (not that I’m suggesting your brain doesn’t exist in reality, but…well, you get the idea).

Write your goals down!

Whether this means writing it out in a notebook, writing it across a whiteboard you keep in your work space, or even painting it across a wall – so long as it is printed out in your hand somewhere you can see it EVERY SINGLE DAY. What does this do? This wonderful concept called self-responsibility. It’s hard to avoid working on those goals if they’re staring you in the face day after day (seriously – can you avoid a cat or dog sitting in your face? No). Guilt will start to build up if you put things off, and it will drive you forward.

Plus, hello? Checklists!

How can you resist the lure of getting to mark off an empty checkbox? I certainly can’t! I love getting to put an X in that box, and it feels AMAZING. Even if it was for something simple (i.e., a work assignment), I get a shivery feeling of accomplishment. You get the same sense when you write out your goals and check off each step. Then you get to look back and see how far you’ve come – bonus feeling!

You create the ladder toward your own success, and you see your journey of accomplishment. It boosts your confidence, it boosts your sense of self, and it brings that dream within reach. With that checklist drifting around in your brain – a nebulous concept – you don’t have the same feeling. Did you come up with that step a month ago or yesterday? Did you remember to do that step yet? Did you think about how to break down that goal into individual parts? It’s just more difficult, and it can become more frustrating – to the point that you skip it entirely.

You want that dream – you know that – so sit down and write out how you’re going to get there. Write out every goal, every step you need to get there. Then make sure you can see those goals every day. Otherwise, your dream is going to stay on that pedestal forever, and you’re going to stay miserable.

Dream Out Loud

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Our dreams are one of the few things we don’t mind sharing with people. I’m not talking about our nightly dreams (though we often share those, as well – especially the weird ones); I’m referencing our dreams for our lives. I mean the dreams that follow the fateful words, “What I really want to do is…” The words are said in wistful tones, as if we feel they’re completely impossible.

NOTHING is impossible.

We conceived of those dreams – those GOALS – for a reason, and it wasn’t so we could stare longingly at them for eternity. You might have put that dream up on a pedestal, but somewhere, in the deep recesses of your mind, it was a finish line – ACHIEVABLE. No, it wasn’t necessarily achievable tomorrow or even next week, but marathons aren’t sprints (and I don’t run, anyway). Sure, people laughed or scoffed, but those hypocrites have their own dreams – they just didn’t tell you between their derision.

To quote Tangled: “Everyone has a dream.”

And you have two choices on what to do with that precious little star: you can continue to stare at it on the pedestal for the rest of your life (it’s a popular choice – plenty of people opt to do so), or you can pull up your britches and actually DO SOMETHING that carries you towards that finish line. Not many people choose that second option. Why would they? It involves work, it involves risk, and it’s scary as hell. Sitting on your butt and admiring the image of the dream from afar is much simpler, and there’s no chance involved. There’s also no gain, no achievement, and no satisfaction.

See where I’m going?

I sat in the former group for a long time. I was terrified of taking the step off the edge of the cliff, and I believed all of the detractors who scorned me. I’m an intelligent person, and I knew the odds of success – it wasn’t hard to accept my failure. Except that you ARE a failure when you don’t even try (fun little caveat). And I don’t accept failure – I’m not that kind of person. So I summoned every drop of courage, crept up to the very edge of the cliff, and got some encouragement to slide my foot off the edge (read that as one of friends THREW me off the cliff – and she didn’t check to ensure I had a parachute first, either).

Guess what happened?

I fell to the bottom of the chasm, mangled and bleeding.

Just kidding – I’m now working my dream job. My stress level has bottomed out (I’m not going to discuss the current quarantine stress – that’s separate), my health has improved, and my happiness has skyrocketed. I feel like MYSELF for the first time in eons, and my confidence has returned. All because I took the risk of standing up and deciding I wanted to follow that dream. I defied the naysayers, the odds, and my nagging doubts and took the chance on that glittering finish line.

Would I say I’ve achieved everything I dreamed of? Of course not, but that’s the beautiful thing about dreams – you get to keep dreaming. You get to keep moving that finish line further out and running towards it (okay, walking towards it – I’m still not going to run). The only person standing in your way is you.

So are you going to continue to stand there, or are you going to MOVE?