It’s easy enough to make a resolution like “Live more adventurously,” but how do you get yourself to take the sometimes daring leaps required? We consulted an expert: best-selling author A.J. Jacobs, who has made a career out of putting himself in outrageous situations and writing humorously about it. In his book It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree, A.J. tells of setting himself the goal of staging the largest family reunion in history. Here, he shares his tips on how you can push yourself into new adventures.
I’ve got a bold assertion: I wasn’t born with a lot of courage, but over the years, I’ve become pretty good at mustering what little I do have. For instance:
a) Despite the fact that she was out of my league, I mustered the courage 18 years ago to ask my now-wife out on a date (she happens to be Julie Jacobs, the chief development officer at Watson Adventures).
b) I’ve spent my career mustering the courage to undergo challenging – sometimes ludicrous – life experiments, and writing books about them. I tried living by the literal laws of the Bible, I staged a record-breaking family reunion, I spent a month without white lies, I tested every diet and exercise regimen known to humankind.
An even bolder assertion: Mustering your courage is perhaps the most important key to human happiness. We need it for all areas of our lives. We need it to leap into New Year’s resolutions and try new diets or exercise regimens. We need it for job applications and dating. We need it for team-building—you can’t take a game-winning team photo at your next Watson Adventures scavenger hunt without a bit of courage.
Over the years, I’ve figured out some strategies to help me become more courageous, or at least pretend to be. I’m bold enough to think they might help you, so here they are.
1. Tell the World Your Plans
When I began my health book, I announced to everyone who would listen that I was going to get healthy. I vowed to all friends (Facebook and real) that I would lose my pot belly within the year. Call it accountability or fear of social humiliation—whatever it was, it worked.
Likewise, I had a group of friends who all vowed to walk at least 10,000 steps a day. We kept track online. If any of us fell below the 10,000 mark, we were risking a lot of trash-talk from our friends. In short, the fear of embarrassment is an excellent motivator.
2. Pretend You’re Courageous
One of my favorite quotes is from the founder of Habitat for Humanity. He said, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting.” In other words, if you pretend you’re courageous or optimistic, you’ll eventually fool your brain and become more courageous or optimistic.
When writing my book on health, I would wake up each morning in despair—how can I write this book? It’s too big a topic. I’ll never finish on time. My solution? I pretended to be confident. I’d call up doctors to set up interviews. I’d email my publisher and suggest we have a huge launch party and serve kale martinis. After a couple of hours, my mind caught up with my actions.
Teddy Roosevelt used the fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy to become the bold man we remember. After growing up in New York City, Teddy went through a life crisis and decided to spend time as a cowboy in the Dakota territories. “There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first,” he wrote, “ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gunfighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
3. Dress Boldly
A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically, in which I tried to follow all the rules of the Bible. I went whole hog (not a kosher phrase, I know). I even started dressing differently. In Ecclesiastes, the Bible says that you should only wear white garments. So I wore exclusively white pants and white shirts.
And here’s the odd(er) part: It actually affected how I felt. I felt cleaner, lighter, more optimistic. Somehow my brain said: how can I be in a bad mood when I look like I’m about to play Wimbledon or go to P Diddy’s party ?
Once again, the lesson was that the outer affects the inner. There are plenty of studies to back this up—people act differently depending on whether they’re wearing a uniform of fancy duds.
You don’t have to wear all-white. But maybe take seriously the idea of “dress for success.”
4. Look to History
For one of my books, I read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. (Julie started to penalize me $1 for every irrelevant fact I inserted into conversation.) Among the many takeaways: Very few people got written into the encyclopedia by sitting on their couch. If you want to make an impact, you need to have some strategic chutzpah.
Consider the poet Langston Hughes. When he was young, Hughes was a busboy at a hotel in Washington, D.C. And the famous poet Vaclav Havel came to stay at the hotel. When Hughes served him breakfast, he slipped some poems to Havel alongside the waffles. (Actually don’t know if it was waffles, but everyone loves waffles, so I’m guessing). In any case, Hughes’s bold move paid off. It’s how he was discovered.
Better yet, look for the brave souls in your own family tree. My latest book, It’s All Relative, is about the importance of family history. Whenever I’m feeling timid, I think about my grandfather, a lawyer whose FBI file is 400 pages long because he had the courage to represent Martin Luther King despite the obvious risks.
5. Embrace Failure
I once wrote an article in which I spoke to a group of scientists about the secrets of creativity. One theme emerged: Even the most successful creative people fail regularly. Mozart wrote plenty of terrible songs. Picasso painted lots of mediocre works. It’s a numbers game. If you come up with enough ideas and projects, some of them will hit. Most will fail.
I try to spend 15 minutes a day coming up with ideas for books and articles. Most are terrible. But a few—and I hope this is one of them—are decent.