I showed my oldest son Gunner a youtube video titled "People Are Awesome: 2015 (Maniac Edition)." It's an amazing compilation of ordinary people doing incredible things: standing on the top of skyscrapers with no lifeline, unimaginable dirt bike stunts, sailing off a cliff without a parachute, standing at the opening of an active volcano, surfing some of the biggest waves ever recorded, somersaulting off the top of a building, freestyling and doing phenomenal things with only their body, going as high as they can and then going a little higher, pushing themselves to the very limit and then pushing even further.
Standing on the edge of the world.
My eight year old was astonished. The craziest thing he's ever done was sliding seamlessly head first into the gravel rocks underneath our tree swing, and I'm pretty sure that was an accident. He cried, he hurt, and then he had some pretty gnarly scars to show off to all his friends.
But as he watched the youtube video, his eyes got wide and I could see the frenzy in his breathing. He watched as people did things that in his little innocent mind, was impossible. Things that looked fun and thrilling but also scared him half to death.
"How do they even do that?!" He asked me. "Those people don't even care if they die!"
And I stopped him right there, made him look me in the eyes and said, "Gunner, quite the opposite. Those people? Those people in that video who were conquering things most people only dream about? Those people are the ones who actually do care. They absolutely care if they die. But they care a million times more about living."
"I think I'd want to do those things when I grow up but I can't because I'm afraid of heights."
Stop right there my beautiful, precious, starry-eyed and creative son. Let me tell you something about fears. Fears are real, they are natural, they are warranted and they will do nothing but hold you back from doing something extraordinary. From experiencing the world and the universe. From moving away from where you are standing right now and propelling you into unheard of, uncharted, inconceivable, out-of-this world adventures. A lot of people live their lives with fear in control. And it's ok, it's accepted, and if you choose to live that way, you can still go on and live a decent even happy life. Maybe get a puppy, have a few kids, a job you kinda sorta like and live until you die.
But, and listen to this: if you do so, you forfeit the right to ever utter the words, "I think I'd want to do those things when I grow up BUT..." Because there is no "but." There is NOTHING acceptable that can ever follow that sentence when you interject the word "but."
Any excuse you will throw in there is baseless and invalid.
And it's so, so, SO untrue. It's a lie. It's a lie you will tell yourself to keep from achieving greatness. It's all a lie, Gunner. It's fiction, it's deception, it's an intentional untruth. It's a prevarication that has stopped and silenced so many of the world's greatest that we will never, ever get the pleasure to know about.
And when it comes to heights? Everyone in this world is on some level afraid of heights. It's a natural human emotion built into all of us to be afraid of standing at the top of the world and looking down below. The higher we go, the more scary it gets. I bet there is not one person who has ever stood at the door of a plane, about to jump, and who didn't get a little lump at the back of their throat. But I also bet that every single person who has ever made that jump pushed fear away and instead replaced "I can't" with "My GOD, this is amazing. I'm doing this."
And then they do it, Gunner. Being afraid of something is part of us all. But letting those fears stop us is absolutely and unequivocally not acceptable.
"Ok then, when I'm older I want to be one of those people who jump out of planes. I won't be scared, mom."
"You will be scared, Gunner. I never said you won't be scared. You will be petrified. You will freeze, you will want to change your mind a million times, you will throw up, you will feel like your heart is going to beat straight out of your chest and fall to the floor beneath you.
And then you'll jump."
"How do I do it then? How do I get there?"
Oh, I'm so glad you asked, darling.
There is no right or wrong way. There's just a way. And it's going to be your way, no one else's. You'll know it when you get there. You'll feel it. Your soul will rumble and you will feel courage with such fervor it will be like nothing you've ever experienced before. You want to dive off cliffs? You can. You want to jump out of planes? You can. You want to swim with sharks in the open ocean? You can. You want to create a pair of rocket boots that will help you sail away to the moon?
But only if you treat fear like the four letter word that it is.
You can do absolutely anything in this whole entire world. You can make the rules, you can break the rules, you can soar to the edge of this whole entire world kid and you can break free from every chain that was ever placed upon you and you can be without limits and you can LIVE.
(and here's a situation where that word fully applies)
You have to put in your dues first.
You have to work hard, sometimes doing things you don't want to do. Actually scratch that. You have to work hard, always doing things you don't want to do. You have to tow the line. You have to go to school and keep your nose to the grindstone and your feet on the ground. You have to focus and stay centered. You have to live with disappointment and be able to withstand setbacks. You will have to experience blow after blow after blow and then when you think you can't possibly take it anymore, you will have to suffer one more terrifying blow. You will fail, that's a given, and you will want to throw in the towel.
And you can, that's your choice. But a lot of discarded dreams are wrapped up in dirty laundry.
You want to rise. I know you do, I can see it in your eyes.
So go do it. Start right now.
You have be determined and dedicated and you have to obey the rules.
Yes, son, you have to obey the rules before you can break the rules.
There is no shortcut, and if you spend your time trying to find one, that is precious time wasted from getting to where you want to be.
No one just wakes up one day and decides to conquer the world.
You have to want it, to feel it, to yearn for it, to live for it, to never, ever, EVER give up and to never stop working for it.
Then, and only then, my little lamb, can you grab your dreams and fly around the world on rocket boots.
But for now, go clean your room.
See also: On Being Happy (another letter to my boys)