In a candid interview with author, blogger and speaker Jeff Goins, we talk about his comfort zone and how he expanded it, his take on fear and much more. Read on and get the full scoop below.
Ishita: In the last few years, you have stepped outside of your comfort zone, which you spoke about it in an earlier piece you wrote for fear.less. Can you talk a bit about that?
Jeff: When I sent that piece to you a few years ago, I was at the beginning stages of relearning a lesson that continues to appear at different stages throughout my life. It’s this idea of stepping out of my comfort zone and into something new. There are always fruits and abundance in that something new but it’s the last thing that I want to do.
About four or five years before writing that piece, I had a pivotal experience in my life. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. My graduating class in high school was composed of about sixty people. It was a small, closely knit community where nothing ever went wrong. Then one day, one of the most popular kids from our class dropped dead in our gymnasium during PE playing basketball. It just devastated our school. In that small, farming community, he was kind of a rock star — everybody liked him. He was overall a nice guy. Even people who didn’t like him were devastated by the news.
At that time, I was a recluse, inactive, overweight, negative guy. My friends and I were sent into this weird little tailspin where a couple of us started bowling to cope with this tragedy, and the idea was that we couldn’t be alone or didn’t want to. It was so bad that we didn’t want us or any of our friends to be alone. So we would go out bowling three or four times a week. That happened for weeks and months, and then eventually, I somehow became the ringleader of this group. I recall one Saturday so vividly — it was a contrast from a year before when I was complaining to my mom that I didn’t have any friends to hang out with. A year later, on the day after the tragedy, I was a group leader. I got three or four phone calls on a Friday night asking what we were going to do on Saturday, which was a totally new and interesting feeling and role for me.
When the tragedy happened, I thought we had to do something different to get out of this funk, otherwise more bad things were going to happen. I wanted to do something to celebrate life, not just continue to mourn.
That’s what I’ve been learning the past couple of years even in terms of writing and doing cool stuff that I’ve never done before but have always wanted to do. It’s just a matter of stepping out and doing it. And not waiting for something bad, tragic or even dramatic to happen. It’s just realizing it’s time to do something. The reality is this: what made me call all of those people one random Saturday and ask them to go out bowling wasn’t the fact that Doug had died — it was the fact that I made the decision to do it.
Ishita: What things are you doing now that would otherwise be uncomfortable for you?
Jeff: One uncomfortable thing for me to do a year ago was to call myself a writer or to admit that I could be this “thing” professionally and be someone whom Steve Pressfield would call a “Professional.” I want to be able to say this is not just a hobby that I do on the side, but what I do as a profession. That was a scary thing for me, but I’m much more comfortable with it now.
At the moment, I’m trying to step out and do more public speaking. It’s easy for me to write something down, edit it and polish it and make it as awesome as I can and submit it somewhere. It’s a lot harder to get up in front of people and speak. So I’m putting myself out there, and speaking at conferences and events in order to get in front of people and share stories and ideas in a new way — and that’s been challenging.
Ishita: Sometimes we know we have to put ourselves out there and do something uncomfortable, but it is so overwhelming that we get stuck. Can you walk us through a process of how you tackle this?
Jeff: I’ve grown to understand closely the feeling in us that says, “Don’t do this.” It’s a feeling of fear or doubt, or what some might call resistance. It’s something that we all experience; this inner voice that say you don’t want to do this. If you do this, things will all fall apart, or you’ll fail. That is the moment when you can decide to shrink back, and just live a normal, mediocre, unfulfilling life or you can step out just a little bit, take one step forward into that unknown where the really cool, exciting stuff happens. Now I wish I could say, “I know this is the voice of fear. I’m just going to jump into this and it’s going to be awesome!” But every time, it feels like I’m going to die. Every time it feels life-threatening. In reality, it’s not. Most of the things we fear, at least in the Western world, are not life-threatening, but they feel that way. The best that I’ve been able to do is to recognize those moments where I hear that voice, and know that this is actually good. This voice means that something is at risk — my comfort. I will lose my comfort if I step into this. That’s a legitimate loss. But on the other end, there’s another equal, maybe even greater feeling that is this sense of purpose or fulfilment. It’s the knowing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
When I’m doing uncomfortable things, this piece of purpose goes with me. Let me give you an example: I moved to Nashville, Tennessee from the Chicago suburbs about six years ago. At that time, I didn’t have a full-time job and so I spent a lot of time in downtown Nashville, which is not a huge city, but big enough for somebody who came from a town of only 1100 people. I would walk around and meet homeless people who would ask me for money, which I had never experienced before. So, at first I avoided them, but then something about it felt wrong. I started spending time with homeless people and had amazing experiences. Basically I spent a year regularly visiting these different communities and then eventually started volunteering at a rescue mission, once a week for about four or five hours. I remember every Tuesday I would get up to drive down to Nashville 6:30 in the morning. Every week, I would not want to do it, thinking of a million excuses. I would have to force myself to get there but as soon as I got there, all of those voices would immediately disappear. I never left thinking, “Gosh, I wish I didn’t do this. I wish I didn’t sacrifice five hours to hear somebody’s story or help somebody, give someone a clean pair of pants.” I always left feeling good, and that I was supposed to be there.
So I’ve just I’ve come to recognize those moments. I can I still hear those voices and I still have all kinds of anxiety, but if I can remind myself that I am going to never regret trying this new thing, I can carry on.
Ishita: What is one of the scarier things that you’ve tried to do in the past few years of being a writer?
Jeff: Approaching people is pretty scary for me. Emailing is easy behind the scenes, but real-life interaction is scary. Something that I’ve become comfortable with now, but was very tough when I started, was to ask the more influential people to meet over a coffee or lunch. I felt as if I was wasting their time. When I first started doing it two years ago, I knew that networking and connecting — whatever you want to call it — was really important. Because the people that I saw were succeeding in some of the things that I wanted to do; that was part of their life. So putting myself out there and meeting new people has been scary.
Ishita: What has come from that, personally and professionally, for you?
Jeff: Great relationships. One of the really important parts of building a brand, creating a platform, getting people to learn about you, and earning attention so that people actually heed your message is having relationships. Life is relationships.
The other reward is confidence. The first time I try something, it is terrifying and takes effort, but as I keep doing it, it starts to feel good and becomes a lot easier. I’m learning that most of the things that I want initially have to be faked before they can actually be done legitimately. So before I can approach an influential person and ask him or her for some of their time, I have to pretend like I know what I’m doing until I actually feel that way, for real.
Ishita: I think that’s a super important point that you have to practice or maybe fake it until you feel it. What’s another example of that?
Jeff: It was certainly the case with writing. I’ve spent my life writing. When I was in middle school I wrote this story in a 3-ring notebook about gargoyles which I’m pretty sure I just ripped off the plot to Jurassic Park and changed it to gargoyles. It was an excuse to use the word “archaeologists” which I knew how to spell, so I felt smart.
I was a part of this coaching group about a year ago where somebody asked me about my dream and I said that I didn’t have one. They pushed me and said, “Well that’s really weird, because I would have thought that your dream was to be a writer”.
It hit me hard because I knew that that was the truth, and so I said, “Yes, I guess, you’re right, maybe someday.” Then he just looked at me really intently and said without blinking or stuttering, “Well you don’t have to want to be a writer Jeff, you are a writer, you just need to write.” That was a really pivotal moment for me and the next day, I got up at 5 am and started writing like I’ve never written before. I just started, and that was the moment when I turned pro. Everything was different after that. I didn’t take a course, I didn’t get a badge or I didn’t get some sort of affirmation. I just started believing something about myself that was already true. I don’t know how other people do things in life, but I did not grow up with a lot of confidence. Having some natural gifts, I realized that I have to believe things about myself before other people will believe them. Usually, most of us have some gifts and we are affirmed by the people that we love, yet we don’t believe it. So, we have to somehow convince ourselves that this is true before we can actually accept our gifts. For example, my wife had been telling me for years that I should write a book. But after that shift happened, within eight months, I believed her affirmation and had a book contract.
Ishita: Why do you think that shift came to you at that time?
Jeff: Choice. I don’t want to undervalue practice; I had been practicing for five years. I had been blogging, doing a lot of freelance writing, writing for magazines, but the difference between my discipline before that moment and after is that between night and day. Before that moment with my coach, I would write whenever I felt inspired on a Saturday afternoon. I had to have a nice carafe of French pressed coffee and it had to be a perfect 72 degree balmy day outside, then I would sit on my porch and I’d write for 2.5 hours. And then I might not write for another two weeks. After that moment though, I got up and every day, no matter what, even if it were only for ten minutes, or an hour, I would write. The quality of my work improved exponentially in a much shorter amount of time so I think it’s really a choice. Obviously you have to spend some time practicing your craft and getting good, but you don’t get good until you are disciplined, and you don’t have the discipline to start practicing until you make that choice.
Ishita: Do you ever fall back into a pattern of not practicing?
Jeff: Yes, there are moments where I feel like I am slipping. At times, I don’t have the discipline that I had for those first six months when I was really excited. I was really passionate, really driven; I was building something. Now that I’ve started to establish myself, life gets busy and I get lazy. Plus, we’ve just had a baby. So there’s all kind of craziness going on. I had to have this mix where I have to be kind to myself and understand that just because I don’t do this today doesn’t mean it negates who I am. Because what you do comes out of who you are, not the other way around.
Ishita: I like how you first affirm yourself and define who you are, and then the action comes from there. You’ve written a great post about defining yourself as a writer. Is that when you started taking yourself seriously? When you started calling yourself a writer?
Jeff: The scariest, craziest, bravest thing I could do was actually call myself that. I wrote, but “real” writers were people like Steven Pressfield who wrote like sixty hours a week – that was their full-time deal. So I didn’t initially feel like I had the right to call myself a writer, but I also realized all these people had to start somewhere. And that I, too, had to start writing. Yes, it is a weird relationship, because if you go around calling yourself a fireman but you never go put out a fire then you’re not a fireman, you’re delusional. The same thing is true with writing. You go around calling yourself a writer but you don’t ever write so you’re not a writer. I found that I was writing, but I just wouldn’t call myself a writer. It was weird because I was doing this thing, but then I wouldn’t believe it about myself, so I really wouldn’t do it with 100 percent of my effort and excellence. It was self-sabotage! When I finally was able to call myself a writer, that’s when I got serious about the work. I thought, “Well, this is my life. If that’s what my imaginary nameplate and business card calls me, then I better show up and do a good job of it.”
Ishita: What tools do you use to approach writing?
Jeff Goins: I try to turn my brain off. My brain doesn’t do any good in the creative process. It’s a helpful editorial tool but when it comes to the actual creative process, it doesn’t help. You can’t always access that mysterious part within you that brings inspiration to write words that have meaning, purpose and depth to them. So the brain has to be switched off to allow that mysterious part to take charge.
So when I sit to write, I turn my brain off, I put my butt in the chair and give myself a ton of grace. Those are the three things that that I do because I love writing. Some people say, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I get that. On the other hand, I actually enjoy the process of writing, yet for some reason, I suck at motivating myself to do it, especially if there is something on the line. If there’s a deadline, an expectation, a client, an audience that is waiting to hear what I have to say, I know that I’m writing something that won’t sit on my computer or moleskin notebook. That is really hard. So, I turn off my brain, sit down, and try not to move. I try not to get up. My wife and I worked out this arrangement so that every Thursday I could write for about two or three hours when she left the house. This was before I got a book deal when I was starting to get serious about writing. I wrote every morning, I was publishing a lot on my blog, writing for some magazines and things like that. A lot of what I was writing was immediately getting published and I realized that I needed to do some deeper, longer work of writing too. So I’d sit down on Thursdays and I’d write for a few hours.
Sometimes, I would sit there for an hour and forty-five minutes and not do anything. I had the music going, I’d drink coffee, I’d check my email or check Twitter a dozen times. Having done all of these procrastinating things, I’d write something great in the last 15 minutes. So although I was immature, lazy and unfocused, I knew the last 15 minutes were a success because I wrote something. I don’t know if that’s a formula but I think grace is so important. Anne Lamont talks a lot about this in her book Bird by Bird. You have to be kind to yourself as a creative, but you also have to be your own drill sergeant
Don’t let yourself off the hook but be gentle with your creative self. Creative people are rebellious; they’re not very good with authority so they’ll check out. That’s what a lot of people do. They understand they have a creative gift; they think there’s one route of discipline to it; they don’t give themselves grace and create these rules. The rule is “write 500 words every day”. But once you break that rule, you’re screwed. Then you just rebel against the system. So it’s important to be kind to yourself first.
Ishita: You spoke of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone reaching out to bloggers, where there’s a line between being yourself and being someone “else”, someone more professional or put together than maybe what I was at the time. What do you think about that?
Jeff: There are different facets to it. “Just be yourself” is a big blogging truism. Put yourself out there and people will love you for it. I know hundreds of people who are being themselves, opening their veins so to speak on their blogs, sharing their personalities with the world, and nobody cares. Therefore, I think we do those people a disservice when we oversimplify it.
The person I am online is not a lie. Similarly, the person I am on stage is not false either, when compared to who I am in real life. However, the person on these platforms is only a part of the whole, true me in the offline world. I’ve tried to be whole of me in every setting, and that’s just not how it works.
Ishita: For example?
Jeff: Social media is a great example of this. Vomiting on my audience with every personal detail about my life from what I ate for lunch to personal struggles that I’m having is not functional for that platform. I’ve found a comfortable place in sharing some aspects of me, but I do it in a way that adds value to people’s lives. One of the things I talk to authors and writers about is branding, which is something that they hate to talk about, but it’s a reality. All good authors have a brand. Sometimes it’s an unintentional choice; a lot of times it’s an intentional choice.
For example, I like guacamole, and about once every two weeks, my wife and I make homemade guacamole. We make it from scratch and love the process. But that does not need to be part of my author brand. People don’t necessarily have to know that. There are different markets for different messages, and it is okay to not be all of you everywhere. I was uncomfortable with this for a long time because everyone said, “Be yourself!” But when I tried to do that, I found it very awkward.
We have to live in this tension of finding “What is the appropriate part of me for me to be in this situation?” I’ve learned most of this through marriage. I thought I knew my wife until I noticed that when she’d be around her family, she would act in a different way, and then we would be around friends and she’d act a different way. At first I thought, “Man, is she a fake? Because this isn’t how she acts when it’s just us sitting on the couch watching Grey’s Anatomy.” I soon realized that I was the same way. I would act differently around different groups of people. This is how human beings are. So, why would that be any different online or in front of an audience?
I think the hard part, if you’re a communicator, is to not be disingenuous with that, to not be somebody on stage and then be somebody completely different offstage. You’ll get found out as this false persona and lose trust with people. But overall I think being yourself, if you’re specific enough how you want to be yourself, is good advice.
About: Jeff Goins is a writer and loves compelling stories, worthy causes, and Pez candy. He has been writing for most of his life, but only recently started calling himself a writer and actually believing it. Read more about him here.
Photos by Pink Sherbet Photography.