Why We Want Adventure in Our Lives—And How to Get It

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me. -Walt Whitman

Adventure. It’s an amazing part of life and work, but often overlooked and neglected.

When I was little, my Dad used to tell stories to my brother and me—always about an adventurer, with a rucksack, off on some expedition. We loved it, in part because of the surprise and danger.

It turns out that adventure has much to teach us about living and leading. Of course, it’s not often that we encounter opportunities for exciting, daring, hazardous undertakings of unknown outcome.

But what if we could cultivate adventure in our lives?
What if we could pursue grand and meaningful adventures in our work?


The Benefits of Adventure in Life

Adventure isn’t something just for daredevils and skydivers. It’s something for all of us who want to live well.

Adventure makes us feel more fully awake, alive, and free. It feeds us with the energy and excitement of exploration, discovery, and surprise. It even comes with a physiological response, with norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter that increases alertness and arousal) and elevated respiratory and heart rates.

“The danger of adventure is worth a thousand days of ease and comfort.”Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

Adventure comes with many benefits:

  • Adventure can give us remarkable experiences to savor and extraordinary memories to cherish.
  • It helps us discover who we really are (or rediscover it), which can be hard to do if we’re constantly mired in responsibilities, expectations, pressures, deadlines, and incessant busyness.
“…your dreams come clean over miles of road.” -Jackopierce, from their song, “My Time”
  • Adventure can help us feel whole again, especially if we’ve been living a divided life, and reconnect with our heart and intuition.
  • It can help us learn and grow, as we face new situations and challenges and try to improvise our way through them.
“Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with his own life.” -Herbert Otto
  • Adventure can help us develop our strength and courage as we learn to confront our fears.
  • It gives us an opportunity to transcend limiting beliefs. (In turn, we can move forward toward fulfilling our potential, learn how to trust ourselves, and develop a greater sense of our own agency.)
  • Adventure can lead to the accomplishment of great things, none of which would have been possible if we hadn’t dared to try.
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt


Ways to Bring Adventure into Our Lives and Work

Despite all these benefits, it’s easy to self-select out of adventure opportunities because of a limited view of ourselves as “not the adventurous type.”

But ceding this territory to the adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers is a mistake, especially since there are so many ways to invite adventure in our lives, some of which are straightforward and accessible for many:

Get out into nature, away from civilization and noise, and venture out into new areas. (You can also take it up a notch and do something like an Outward Bound expedition.)

“In the middle of the forest is an unexpected clearing, that can only be found by those who are lost.” -Tomas Tranströmer, Swedish poet

Travel to new places. (When you do so, be sure to get off the beaten path and take what Clif Bar entrepreneur Gary Erickson calls the “white roads.” When cycling through Europe with a friend, he noticed that, on a map, red roads are the big roads, full of vehicles, noise, and exhaust, while white roads are the smaller, quieter, less traveled paths full of surprises.

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful.” -Anthony Bourdain 

Learn or try something new. Try running, surfing, sailing, rock climbing, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, rafting, triathlons… whatever calls to you.

Sample new cuisine. My friends in Maryland are currently on a quest to eat a meal from every country in the world.

Ask someone out if you’re single. Take that chance even if it scares you. You ever know what might be on the other side of that decision.

Engage more with strangers. You never know what you may learn or encounter—or how much it may mean to someone in need.

Make new friends. Too many people start cocooning later in life after settling down, leading to disconnection, loneliness, and unhealthy over-reliance on a spouse or significant other.

Take advantage of transition times in your life (e.g., after graduating, in between jobs, when the kids leave the home, retirement, etc.). (For a great book on this, check out Life Is in The Transitions by Bruce Feiler.)

Launch or join a startup venture, or an innovation initiative or skunkworks project at your workplace. These can be thrilling in their challenges and opportunities—and career highlights.

Break out of a career rut, no longer settling for a bad manager or toxic culture, and finding something more worthy of your efforts and more aligned with your values and aspirations.

Go back to school to help launch you on a different career track that’s a better fit, or just because you’re curious and would like to learn and engage with new people and settings.

If you’re a manager, give your team an epic challenge, or create exciting new experiences for them to break the monotony and invite their creativity.

Join an adventure expedition or festival. There are many options. A summer camp for adults, a Tough Mudder, Burning Man, South by Southwest, and more.

Go on a retreat or a spiritual pilgrimage. Retreats like InsideFirst Roundtables, Modern Elder Academy Sabbatical Sessions, and Inventure expeditions. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Mecca, Camino de Santiago (France and Spain), Mount Kailash (Tibet), and Shikoku (Japan) to something more homegrown and local.


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Some of my favorite adventures over the years have included:

  • backpacking through Europe
  • studying abroad for a year in London in graduate school
  • camping and climbing a pair of “fourteeners” (mountains rising to 14,000 feet above sea level) in the Colorado Rockies with friends
  • sailing on an overnight felucca boat down the Nile with my brother
  • performing live music at gigs, bars, and coffeehouses
  • trying to learn how to surf in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, spotting a great surfer on the same beach, asking him if he knew anyone around who could give me surfing lessons, and then getting a personal surfing lesson from him and learning that he was an international surfing competitor
  • joining school plays and musicals despite having no background in theater
  • bridge-jumping with a friend at his college
  • canoeing and swimming in a Puerto Rican bay among bioluminescent plankton
  • cliff-diving at an Adirondack lake
  • working at a tech startup that became a scale-up, with all its highs and lows
  • taking a self-generated sabbatical after leaving that startup so I could take my life back
  • getting married
  • becoming a father
  • moving to Sweden, getting out of my bubble and learning a new culture, language, and worldview (and then moving back to Colorado)

These are some of my fondest memories, but I also see that there have been long chapters in my life in which adventure has been absent.

Thankfully, I’ve been inspired by adventurous friends and colleagues. One friend talked his way onto a naval submarine off the coast of South America so he could hitch a ride down the coastline.

Another favorite of mine: an entrepreneur we interviewed for LIFE Entrepreneurs who retreats to his own “secret office”:

“Each year, I try to take twenty-five work-week days and spend them hiking, biking, or on the water some place. It’s like having your own secret office with the world’s best views. These aren’t bank holidays or the days between Christmas and New Year’s. They’re mid-week days right in the heart of the year when everyone else is at their desk. My best creative thinking is on these days. The places I go are inspiring, and exercise tends to calm my mind and help me see the big picture. Following these days, I try to resist the urge to catch up on emails at night. Instead I’ll write or think about what occupied my mind that day.”Max Israel

If you struggle with jumping on the adventure bandwagon, consider this unconventional motivator:

Contemplate your death.

This ancient practice from the Stoics (memento mori: “Remember that you must die”) and other traditions can help put our lives in perspective while also highlighting their flaws, sparking urgency to grab hold of our lives while we have them.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” -Steve Jobs


The most important adventure of all is the one that’s most hidden: everyday life.

Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of daily activity, it’s easy to lose sight of the grand adventure that is life itself. The miracle that we’re here, wandering on a planet hurtling through the cosmos, all part of a wondrous, incomprehensible whole.

How can it all possibly be? What will happen next, in our lives and the world? Why are we here? What will we choose to do with our unknown number of days, and who with, and to what end? A grand adventure, indeed, and the most precious of gifts.


Traps that Keep Us from Having Adventures

There are many pathways into adventure, from the mundane and simple to the morbid and sublime. But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that it’s always easy, given our circumstances and obligations.

Too often, we fall into the common traps of living, many of which make adventure feel out of reach. Some of the traps:

  • Conforming: conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths.
  • Drifting: getting carried along by time, circumstances, and outside influences.
  • Playing the short game: being short-sighted and neglecting the big picture.
  • Being outer-driven: being driven by external (parent, peer, societal) expectations and caring too much about what other people think.
  • Postponing happiness: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  • Settling: compromising or settling for “good enough.”
  • Being a workaholic: being addicted to work or success, letting it consume our thoughts and time while letting other important things slip away.

The traps are tricky. They sneak up on us, sometimes capturing us for years. But they’re not insurmountable.

We just need something worthy of our efforts to break free. Something like the sweet thrill of adventure and the lasting glow it brings. Here’s to more adventure in life.

Do you have enough adventure in your life?
 What can you do, starting today, to invite more adventure into your life and work?


Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.



Postscript: Quotations on Adventure in Life

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is: not to take the risk.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus
  • “Cover the earth before it covers you.” -Dagobert Runes
  • “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” -Helen Keller
  • “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” -Andre Gide
  • “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Only those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” -Robert Kennedy
  • “Jobs fill your pockets, but adventures fill your soul.” -Jaime Lyn
  • “Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you.” -Marcus Purvis
  • “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” -Anais Nin
  • “Above all, life entrepreneurship is an adventure.” -Warren Bennis
  • “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain
  • “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild



Bonus: Inspiring Adventure Classics

Many of us cherish the classic adventure stories from literature and film that inspire our dreams and ambitions. Some of my favorites:

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien took us on an epic ring quest. Starting in the Shire, the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin band together with other wily characters like Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Arwen, Galadriel, Boromir, and others to take on Sauron, Saruman, the Orcs, Trolls, and more hideous creatures and wizards and try to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom, thereby saving the world. It’s a classic tale of courage and good versus evil, wrapped in a brilliant adventure.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -Bilbo Baggins, a character in J. R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Odyssey

In this epic poem by Homer, Odysseus struggles to endure the wrath of the gods, smite mystical creatures, and survive daunting threats—from a cyclops and witch to a sea storm and the alluring Sirens—in a decade-long struggle to return home to his wife, Penelope.

“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” -Homer, The Odyssey

Into the Wild

This book by Jon Krakauer recounts the spirited adventures of Christopher McCandless (a.k.a., “Alexander Supertramp”), a young man disillusioned by the conventions of civilized life in suburban Virginia and its soul-sapping monotony. He gave up his possessions, donated his college fund to charity, and embarked on a brand-new path, traveling westward across the country, abandoning his car after a flash flood, and then hitchhiking to the Stampede Trail in Alaska, where he set off alone in the snow with only ten pounds of rice, a camera, a rifle, ammunition, and some reading.

“I now walk into the wild.”Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

Harry Potter

J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novels tell the story of Harry Potter, a young wizard touched by fate, and his friends and allies Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Albus Dumbledore, and Hagrid. Their escapades at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry place Harry in harrowing battles against Lord Voldemort, the dark wizard.

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”J. K. Rowling 


Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was an explorer who led three expeditions to the Antarctic in the 1900s. During the Nimrod expedition, he and his crew made the largest advance toward the South Pole in history. After subsequently losing the race to the South Pole to Roald Amundsen, Shackleton focused on crossing Antarctica from sea to sea via the South Pole. During this expedition, its ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice and was gradually crushed. The crew camped on the sea ice and then launched lifeboats and traveled an incredible distance to reach Elephant Island and then South Georgia Island.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” -newspaper ad placed by Sir Ernest Shackleton to recruit a crew for his Antarctic expedition


Bonus: Gregg’s Curated Music Playlist for Your Next Adventure in Life

  • “8 Miles from a Paved Road,” Edwin McCain
  • “America,” Simon and Garfunkel
  • “Beautiful Day,” U2
  • “Can’t You See,” The Marshall Tucker Band
  • “Drift Away,” Dobie Gray
  • “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman
  • “Free,” Jackopierce
  • ‘Hit the Road Jack’ by Ray Charles
  • “Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison
  • “I Want to Get Lost with You,” Stereophonics
  • “My Time,” Jackopierce
  • “On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson
  • “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” The Eagles
  • “Ramblin’ Man,” Allman Brothers Band
  • “Roam,” The B-52’s
  • “Route 66,” Chuck Berry
  • “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” by Tom Petty
  • “Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne
  • “Seven Bridges Road,” The Eagles
  • “Shotgun Rider,” Tim McGraw
  • “Southern Cross,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash
  • “Take It Easy,” The Eagles (or the original Jackson Browne version)
  • “The Mountains Win Again,” Blues Traveler
  • “Vineyard,” Jackopierce
  • “Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2
What are your favorite adventure or road-tripping songs? Contact me here to send me suggestions for this list.

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Getting Good at Overcoming Fear

Fear. A terrible feeling. Something to avoid.


Not so fast.

Fear can actually be turned into a powerful asset and opportunity, if understood and addressed properly. Can we get good at overcoming fear?

First, what is it? Fear is a feeling of distress or dread caused by a sense of impending danger or pain. It’s a powerful, primitive emotion. A warning that we need to pay attention.

We need fear to survive, and it has served us well through the ages. But it can also be one of the biggest obstacles in our lives.

We can go through our whole lives trying to avoid the things we’re afraid of, dramatically altering our experience of life.

In that sense, fear is like a force field keeping us in our comfort zone.

How strong is its hold over us?

What lies beyond our fears?

How do we find out?


What Are We Afraid Of?

First, let’s understand what we’re afraid of.

Of course, some people have a phobia (an extreme or irrational fear or aversion of something), such as fear of the dark, heights, flying, spiders, and snakes.

But here, we’re focused on the everyday fears in our lives, work, and social settings that hold us back. It turns out, we have many such fears, including a fear of:

  • abandonment or loneliness
  • change
  • commitment
  • conflict
  • losing control
  • death
  • embarrassment (including fear of looking bad, and of public speaking)
  • failing
  • getting hurt
  • inadequacy, or being judged as not being good enough, or being blamed
  • missing out (FOMO)
  • making mistakes
  • pain
  • regret
  • rejection
  • losing status
  • trusting others (and being taken advantage of)
  • uncertainty and unknowns

Entrepreneur and author Ruth Soukup notes that our fears often come not only with negative traits but also positive ones. For example, if we’re afraid of making mistakes, it can lead to procrastination and perfectionism but also high-quality work that’s well organized and error-free. If we fear being judged, it can lead to people-pleasing and failing to set boundaries but also to being a team player who’s thoughtful and fun to be around.

The story is complex. Fear has a ghastly reputation, but it turns out that it isn’t all bad. Far from it. To accept that key insight, first we need to understand what it is, how it works, and why it exists.


Fear Is a Physiological Phenomenon

Fear isn’t something only for cowards. It’s part of being human. Fear is universal. We all experience it.

Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, starting in the part of our brain called the amygdala. The feeling of fear is a state of high arousal designed to protect us from harm. It’s a survival response that has evolved over the ages.

When we’re afraid, we become hyper-alert. Our nervous system sets a cascading fear response into motion: our breathing accelerates, and our heart rate and blood pressure rise. Also, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—sometimes in a flood. Our pupils dilate. Blood flows into our limbs so that we can respond aggressively to a threat by fighting or fleeing.

With all these physical and chemical reactions, we experience impairment of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles reasoning, judgment, sensation, perception, memory, creative association, and voluntary physical movement. As a result, we don’t think as clearly, and it’s harder to make good decisions. We become preoccupied with the threat.

If left unchecked, fear can become debilitating. It can prevent us from functioning at our best—or even at all.


Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Reframing Fear

Clearly, it’s important for us to learn how to manage fear to avoid situations where it debilitates us. This leads us to two key insights:

1. Fear is often a paper tiger.

The fear of what may happen is often worse than the reality of what actually happens, or what may. It’s a bit like a movie playing in our head—coming from a man in the projection room at the back of a theater.

A fierce tiger appears on our mental screen. The animal seems powerful, with menacing fangs and a terrible roar. Our skin crawls. The hair on our arms stands up. But the tiger, in most cases, is only a scared cat with its own fears.

We experience a raging physiological thunderstorm of fear as if it’s the truth and based in reality. In fact, it’s only an anticipatory reaction to a perceived threat designed to get us ready for combat or avoidance. In the swirl of the storm, we have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s only possible. Fear is the step in between.

Often the alarm system is overly vigilant and too quick to escalate the alert levels. It gets carried away. We become accustomed to fleeing at the first alert. The synapses in our brain lay an escape path of backward movement: Retreat. Withdrawal. Over time, this becomes habitual and unconscious. We just do it. We avoid. Or we run. So we never move forward in the areas holding us back.

2. Fear signals an opportunity for breakthroughs when we’re able to see it clearly.

It’s a protective layer serving as a boundary between stasis and transcendence. Most people approach the layer and then turn and run.

But learning how to sit with it is the master maneuver. We must learn to recognize that the tiger is a paper one. Because then we can go forward instead of turning back. And that’s where the good stuff is: the challenge, the learning, the development.


Overcoming Fear: How to Manage Our Fears

So how to do this? How to proceed anyway despite this onslaught of biochemical alerts? Here are 12 steps to help you get good at overcoming fear:

  1. Spend time with your fears. Study them. Write about them. Get comfortable with them.
  2. Get gradual exposures to your fears. (That’s what Navy SEALs and NASA astronauts do.)
  3. Prepare for high-pressure events that tend to trigger your fear alert system. By doing so, you will lower the chance of running into problems and feeling out of control. Practice and role-play in challenging situations. Place yourself in settings that challenge you and see how you can survive, learn, and grow. It helps to have a growth mindset.
  4. Visualize success. Paint a mental picture of overcoming obstacles and achieving your objectives.
  5. Gather information to reduce the fear of the unknown. Fear often shrinks or disappears in the face of facts and scrutiny.
  6. Name the fear and analyze it rationally, including whether there’s a deeper fear behind the immediate fear. (For example, a fear of making a mistake in a presentation can be amplified by an underlying fear of being rejected by the group, or not being valued by others.) Understand it. Embrace it. Use it as fuel for determined action.
  7. Recall that the fear is usually much worse than the things we’re actually afraid of. Get in the habit of comparing actual outcomes to the worst-case scenarios your amygdala is freaking out about. Note that your amygdala only comprises about 0.3% of your brain’s volume. Don’t let the 0.3% wag the 99.7%.
  8. Try not to panic. The goal is not to be fearless, as that’s virtually impossible biologically, but rather to learn how to manage your fear and still function effectively. Deep breathing can help calm your mind and body.
  9. Have a deeper why—a purpose worth wrestling your fear for. (For example, you may face a great challenge at work with a project or initiative that will test your self-worth and resilience but you wisely attach it to your role as a provider in your family and how you can be a role model for your children.)
  10. Gain perspective and look at the fear in the larger context. (For example, although it may hurt your pride and sense of social standing if you fail on a project, you know that you’ve built up a lot of credibility over the years through your competence and diligence—and that there will likely be many more opportunities to try again in the future.)
  11. Face the fear and move through it (not away from it). Give yourself experience with confronting and overcoming your fears. This will help build your fear resilience muscles. You’ll start to become a brave person—through your decisions, habits, intellect, and force of will.
  12. Ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone. We all need help sometimes! (By the way, showing vulnerability by asking for help builds connection.)

In the end, recall that fear is part of being human. It has served us well over the ages, but it also holds us back. If we can learn to “punch fear in the face,” as Jon Acuff put it, we can do so much more of what’s important in life. Be bolder. And get good at overcoming your fears. Your future self will thank you for it.

Reflection Questions on Overcoming Fear

  • Which fears are holding you back?
  • How long have they kept you fenced in?
  • What opportunities lie on the other side of those fears?
  • What will you do about it?


Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire

Settling for “good enough” instead of what you really want? Getting comfortable with the ordinary? Letting others treat you poorly? Suffering through a poor work situation? Tired of working with people who don’t want to excel or don’t share your values? Playing small, even though you know there’s something bigger possible for you?

Time out. This is your life. Your one and only life, with an uncertain duration and no guarantees. Time to take it back.

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” -Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa


Tired of Settling? Why Do We Settle?

If you’re settling, you’re not alone. It’s a common trap. There are many reasons we settle:


1. Fear

We’re afraid of looking bad, of not living up to expectations, of failing. We fear what other people will think or say. So we let these fears box our choices, keeping us squarely in the safe and conventional spaces even though we long for something more. The kicker is that we’re often misreading people and conjuring scenarios of their disappointment and rejection when in fact they’re not even thinking of us, or they have a wildly different take. Too often, we’re just listening to phantom voices in our head whispering about unlikely worst cases.

“So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey, actor, comedian, writer, producer


2. Self-Deception

We’re brilliant at hiding the truth from ourselves. We rationalize: It’s only for a while. What choice do I have? In these excuses, we hide from the distressing realization that we’re settling for something less than desirable.

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.” -Plato, classical Greek philosopher


3. Conformity

We yield to parental expectations, social norms, and conventional paths instead of blazing our own path. We worry about the harsh judgment we think may come if we stand up or stand out, so we shrink back into the facelessness of the crowd. Sure, there’s safety in the crowd. But also boredom—and regret.


4. Inertia

Change is hard. We get stuck in the quicksand of questions: What to do instead? How to decide? How to make it work? Can I really give up the safety of what I have now? The “switching costs” (of changing jobs, careers, degrees, locations, etc.) can be high—especially in the short term, with no way to know the long-term payoff. So we stick with a lesser path because it’s easier to stay the course. But at what cost in terms of lost opportunities and sense of pride and satisfaction for testing our mettle and venturing forth into the terrifying beauty of possibility?

“Never be passive about your life…  ever, ever.”Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author


5. Not tending to the fire

We’re all born with a zest for life (see how babies and children experience the world) and a capacity for dreaming big (go back and visit your childhood dreams). These aspirations require energy, but too often we’ve let that energy fizzle out over time by burying ourselves in busywork, escaping into mindless distractions, numbing ourselves, and making excuses.

There are indeed big obstacles. Not all are fortunate enough to have choices, or a savings cushion, or the ability to escape poverty, financial insecurity, or other debilitating hardship. But these questions are relevant to all, regardless of circumstances, because even in the hardest circumstances we have agency and possibilities for change, whether by hard work, grit, adjusting our approach, or upgrading our skills and outlook.

Often the real issue is lack of clarity about what we want and how we can move forward in the face of uncertainty. Trepidation about being who we really are. Setting the bar low so we won’t be disappointed if we fail to reach it. We lack a clear and compelling why. We have no audacious aspiration to rekindle the fire.

That’s not all. More things contribute to settling:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

The Flip Side: Dangers of Not Settling?

Let’s pause here and note that there’s a danger of taking this line of thinking about not settling too far. We can get so focused on striving for something better that we lose our capacity to be grateful for what we have now. Also, we can get caught up in obsessively chasing success due to an unhealthy need for validation and recognition for achievements.

There’s a danger to some of swapping a life of settling for a life of anxiety and workaholism, detached from family, friends, health, and the simple pleasures: nature, hobbies, quiet time. We can risk losing our capacity for quiet reflection, mindfulness, and pausing for renewal. We should be wary of getting too caught up in “climbing mode.”

Ceaseless and obsessive striving can prevent us from living a full life with a healthy array of meaningful aspects, like marriage, family, career, health, friendships, community, and more. In his book, On Settling, social philosopher Robert E. Goodin notes that if we settle on some things, we’re better positioned to concentrate on others that are more important. Otherwise, our efforts may be too diffuse and never gain traction.

We can have bold aspirations for a better future but still be grateful for what we have and not too attached to a future outcome that’s unlikely to solve everything in our life and bring us unending joy. Life doesn’t work that way. Writer Chris Guillebeau creatively flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.”

So yes, we mustn’t turn our striving into a compulsive crusade. But for many, the bigger danger is settling.


The Icarus Deception

The myth of Icarus is relevant here. You may recall the warning Daedalus gave to his son, Icarus, after constructing wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete: “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

The big danger is hubris, right? Of having the sun melt your wings of wax if you get too full of yourself and fly too high.

But author Seth Godin points out that Daedalus warned Icarus first of the danger of complacency—the danger of flying too low such that the damp sea affects his wings and causes him to crash into the water. The first danger is about flying too low. We must guard against that too.

So what to do?


Tired of Settling? How to Stop

Tired of settling? There are several things we can do to stop settling and reignite the flame in our life and work:


1. Take full responsibility.

Be a “LIFE Entrepreneur,” taking ownership of your life, and recognizing your agency. Take your life back. Stop making excuses. No one’s coming to the rescue. LIFE Entrepreneurs don’t just live: they lead a life. They don’t sit around waiting for a lucky break. LIFE Entrepreneurs create opportunities. They go after their dreams and bring them to life, and they develop a vision of the good life, devise a plan for how to attain it, go for it, and check their progress along the way. As with any great effort, their work is never done but ever-evolving and, often, inspiring to those around them.

2. Summon the courage to try.

Act in spite of your fears. That of course sounds easier than it is in practice. How to punch through the fear? It helps to realize that most fears are phantoms, unlikely to play out in real life like the nightmare in our head. Also, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying. It also helps if you do what’s next on the list below, to give you a sense of drive and direction:


3. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision.

This will ensure that you’re clear about where you want to go in your life and work, and how and why:

  • Purpose: why you’re here, and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—including by serving others
  • Values: what’s most important? What are your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior?
  • Vision: what you aspire to achieve in the future, and what success looks like for you

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


4. Start.

Get momentum by trying things. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) and notch small wins. Use this to build toward taking massive action.


5. Build vitality.

Develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, wellness, energy, and strength. Be intentional about nourishing habits, rituals, and routines, with visual cues to remind you about what to do and where and when. Choose intentionally what you do, with whom, and what you consume. Eventually you become the kind of person who doesn’t settle without having to think about it so much.


6. Let go of limiting beliefs.

Change your mindset. Upgrade your mental operating system. How? Spend time with people you admire. Read books that challenge and inspire you. Take courses that help you develop new skills and abilities. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Work with a mentor, coach, or therapist to shed vestiges of the past that no longer serve you.


7. Set and maintain high standards for yourself.

As with our children, we tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. Set deadlines. Focus on results. Hold yourself accountable. Be systematic about learning, development, and continuous improvement. Be clear about the kind of life you seek and commit to it. Choose the life you want, and then get to work crafting it with a hopeful and determined heart.


Temperature Check: Tired of Settling?

How’s your fire? Is it burning hot, lukewarm, or flaming out? If you’re settling, resolve to do what you can with what you have to start turning up the heat.


Reflection Questions

  • Tired of settling? Are you settling in any important aspects of your life (family, health, career, etc.)?
  • If so, what will you do about it? When and how?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • What works for you when it comes to reigniting the flame?
  • What are you waiting for?


Postscript: Quotes on Settling

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” -Les Brown
  • “If you decide to live in the arena, you will get your ass kicked. You can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you can’t have both.” -Brene Brown, researcher and author
  • “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher
  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, American writer
  • “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.” -Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist
  • “We ask ourselves, ‘How am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson


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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!