Nancy Mwirotsi didn’t start out intending to teach technology to some of Iowa’s most vulnerable kids. In fact, she didn’t start out intending to work with technology or kids at all. Her story began, as it so often does, with trying to help one person.
My dog Lucy was terrified of windshield wipers. She would lunge at the windshield, barking furiously, until she wore herself out and eventually huddled on my lap for comfort. I never did figure out what she thought it was. No amount of soothing or coaxing could convince her that it was going to be okay. And so she lived in fear of those damn wipers her entire life.
When it was time to take the cover photos for Soul Uprising, I was already late. I’d been so focused on writing a manuscript and working through edits that I had completely forgotten the part of the book people see first: the cover. I was in total “it will be what it will be” mode when I showed up for the shoot (for those who don’t know me well--this particular mode tends to show up when I’m low on sleep and is not ideal for things that involve attention to detail such as posing for arguably the most important photo of my career to date).
Thankfully, I was working with Whitney Warne.
One of the interesting things about coaching people is that you learn a lot about the lengths we go to sabotage ourselves. Lately I’ve been revisiting a quote I heard a long time ago, “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can't achieve it.”
There’s the woman whose parents struggled and taught her that people with money have messed-up values, therefore whenever she has an idea that might lead to a better life for her and her family, she silently tells herself not to be so greedy.
There’s the guy who has liked a girl from afar forever, then when he gets a chance, pushes her away because deep down he’s afraid he’s not enough to keep her and he doesn’t think he can bear the rejection.
There’s the couple with an idea for a great startup that could make a huge difference for people, but they put it off and put it off because they don’t want to upset the apple cart and that’s just a silly dream anyway.
There’s the woman who isn’t in love with her boyfriend, but he’s safe and he wants her and starting over seems hard so she goes ahead and marries him anyway because if she holds out for something better she’s being too demanding and might end up with nothing.
This stuff is rooted deep inside of us. We believe that allowing ourselves to reach for something wonderful will lead us to pain. Maybe we’ve been burned before by something that’s too good to be true. Maybe we’ve tried before, and it didn’t work out. But falling down is a part of the process. Healthy people dust themselves off and move on.
Unless we don’t believe we are worthy of it.
Our brains are very, very good at learning patterns. From a survival standpoint, this makes sense. No need to keep touching that ivy with the three leaves; we remember the blistery rash from last time. Best not to poke that snake with the rattle on his tail, we saw the guy in the next cave get bitten last week. Enjoyed those juicy red berries? Go get more of those.
But our world today is much different. Our challenges are less about physical survival, but about how best to use our skills and resources. In this more nuanced world, sometimes those survival instincts kick in a little too hard and we encode a pattern that’s not truly there. Did your idea fail? It’s probably because you’re not smart enough. Did your relationship fail? It must be because you’re not attractive enough.
Over time, these fears become facts in our mind. We accept that we’re bold enough to run that company, smart enough to write that book, or worthy enough to earn that person’s love. And the more we believe it, the more we catalog evidence that it’s true. Instead of seeing ourselves for who we are and what we’re capable of, we try to earn stability by aiming smaller. Surely if we just stick to something moderate, we will be enough and no one will find out our secret failings. For me, I was the nerdy girl in school and whenever something goes wrong, that awkward little 14 year-old with braces and ears that stick out pops her head up and whispers that it’s because I’m not pretty enough, popular enough or cool enough.
But the truth is, everyone is flawed. Everyone is a unique mix of strength and weakness. And aiming lower tends to amplify our weaknesses, while aiming higher brings out our strengths.
Part of the reason it brings out our strengths is that aiming higher tends to access our deepest values. It’s easy to get fired up about something that could change your community or even the world. It’s harder to do your best work on something you know won’t have much impact. It’s motivating to know that what you’re doing could alter the course of someone’s life. Even when choosing a partner, if you find that one person who makes you stand up a little taller, you’ll work harder to nurture that relationship.
That passion is necessary, because most things worth doing aren’t easy. You’re going to need that conviction to weather the challenges and stay focused. In fact, it’s the opportunity to work hard at something worth doing because it’s special enough to matter that gives it all meaning in the first place. And in doing that, we’re inevitably choosing some level of pain.
Richard Branson said “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and falling over.” You probably fell approximately the first 387 times you tried to walk. Did you say to yourself “well, that’s it, I clearly am not good enough/smart enough/tall enough/pretty enough to walk and I’m just going to be satisfied crawling around down here for the rest of my life"? No, you just got up and tried it again. You didn’t take it as evidence of your inadequacy, you just kept going. But what if choosing to go for greatness makes someone close to you uncomfortable?
When we choose to go for something great, we choose to say no to other opportunities that might be more comfortable to ourselves and others. We might have to say no to a business distraction that doesn’t fit our mission. We might have to part ways with colleagues who don’t share our values or tell our parents our dream is different from theirs.
I remember speaking with a friend who had just ended a relationship. I’d liked his girlfriend and thought she was adorable and sweet, so I was pretty surprised they’d split. He had this to say: “She’s amazing, but we were one degree off. And if you’re one degree off and you keep going on that same trajectory, ten years down the road you’re miles apart.” I was floored by the courage he had to end something that was so close, but would never be what he knew he could have if he just held out. Not coincidentally, he’s now in a new relationship and very happy.
It all reminds me of a Mark Manson article where he says everything should be “F*ck yes, or no.” If it doesn’t fire you up, you’re probably going to quit before you get to the finish line anyway, and then you’ve just wasted everyone’s time. Better to say no to the wrong pain so you can say yes to the challenges that are worth it. I’ve definitely made the mistake of selling myself short because I didn’t want to risk pain. The process ended in hurt anyway, every single time.
The truth is that the pain of going for it is usually better than the pain of settling. Yes, there are challenges, but it’s 100 percent worth it. And so are you.