Living Big: Busting Through The Fears That Keep Us Living Small


Clients hire me because they want more out of their lives. Usually they come looking because their careers have stalled or are unchallenging or they just want more juice and color in their lives. Whatever, it’s all some version of playing small—playing for mouse.

And I got it. It was my plan to pack my life with big things: Great adventures, passionate loves, ambitious projects, meaningful work, spiritual ecstasy—whatever, anything but normal.

In one part of my life, I’ve done that. In another painful lonely part, it’s been a mess.

This is the metaphor of my life. I divide life into two worlds: The first is the world of nature, things, and me by myself. The second is the world of people, connection, and relationship. In the first, I am an elephant—I march thru it unstoppable, unintimidated, ambitious, making big things happen. In the second, I am a mouse—I sneak into it, grab a few crumbs, and scurry back to the first.

World of Nature examples: Still a teenager, I stuck out my thumb, rode it to Alaska (from Philly), and lived in a cabin where winters got to 50 below. I’ve climbed mountains and canoed wilderness rivers; I’ve biked the continental divide from Alaska to Mexico, I’ve lived in Italy, written novels, and been twice around the world. The first time, overland across the Sahara, thru the jungles of Africa and then into southern and eastern Asia. The second time, alone across oceans in a small sailboat without electronics or inboard engine.

World of People examples: I purposefully chose a profession, not out of love or great ambition, but because the job market for it was hot. I became an IT engineer, though back then we called them computer programmers. I had no love for computers, wasn’t particularly good at them, but industry was screaming for programmers, which meant I didn’t have to make something happen, something would happen to me.

Programmer humiliated me. I’d promised myself rock star (jazz trumpet, actually), president, superhero and instead, I made myself a dweeb. But programming was perfect for a mouse. Easiest way to check into that other world, make a few bucks, and check out again.

Playing a small life pissed me off.

At 34, I committed to kicking my mousehood. I leapt into the fray. The next decade, as you might suspect, was a catastrophe. I sallied into a war with myself and discovered that the bad guys have all the ammo.

Then one day, eleven years later, brutalized and near annihilated by my mouse, I stumbled into a coaching program. Three days later, I was doing un-mouse-like things. They weren’t elephant-like things, but whatever, something had moved. Therapy, self-help books, gritting your teeth and just doing it, beating yourself up, meditating, whining, blaming my parents: None of that had worked for me. But three days of heavy-duty coaching showed me a path out.

I didn’t stay around and walk that path though; I headed back to Alaska. I did things I couldn’t do before: I ran an environmental group, faced down senators and governors, and walked into the belly of the beast—people who loathed me. But I was still constrained, still straight-jacketed by my own limitations and fears, still pounding my head bloody against the walls of myself. Finally, I’d had enough. I pulled up stakes, headed to New York City, and threw myself into coaching—first as coachee and participant; then as a coach.

I have been held at the point of an AK-47 in Niger, run surging glacier-fed rivers in a sliver of a canoe, been knocked down by a storm in the Tasman sea and none of that stuff was as scary as my five years in NYC. There were nights I lay in bed staring at the ceiling in the gray sickly light of the city, filled with dread for the next day—making a phone call, telling someone something they weren’t going to like, standing for myself, busting through someone else’s “no.”

The fears that we have in our heads, the fears that could never draw literal blood, that could never cause us physical harm, paralyze us the most. It is these fears that keep us living small and mouse-like.

Five years of intense coaching in NYC busted up those fears for me. To be clear, they’re not gone, but they don’t keep me small like they once did. What I can do now that I couldn’t do before? Be straight, be present, be real, and love.

Here’s the deal: Life is short and if you’re not reveling in it, you’re pissing it away. Breaking out of your cocoon of fear is the path to a fuller life. Coaching did it for me.

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