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Getting Unstuck

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Last May, in order to pursue his dream of an integrated life of travel, writing, and photography, a smart, attractive thirty-something named Zero Dean quit his job, terminated the lease on his apartment, sold or donated most of his worldly possessions, and — with very little money — took to the open road to see where it would lead him. After crisscrossing the country for the better part of a year, this veritable standard-bearer of “unstuckness” was encamped at a bakery ten miles from my home. And how did I know that? Because as I sat down to write this column on how to get unstuck, Zero Dean’s Facebook status update just happened to be on my computer screen. The synchronicity of his entry stunned me.

Compelled by the coincidence and curious to see how well his strategy for getting unstuck lined up with my own, I sent him an email. His response was immediate, and in no time at all, I was sitting across from Zero (yes, it turns out that Zero is his real name), listening to the tale of how he’d jumped the rails of his routine existence and taken off in the direction of his dreams.

Zero had been working as a computer graphic artist at a firm in San Diego. One day, while looking out over a sea of cubicles through a window across the room, he realized that what he really wanted was to be “out there” — traveling, taking photographs, and having adventures and writing about them. “I was afraid of dying with my music still in me,” he said, paraphrasing Oliver Wendell Holmes. And so he decided to go for it.

Initiating a big leap from a deep rut can seem to require more energy than we have to give. And because our intelligence system is designed to make energetically advantageous decisions, it tends to want to veto a move deemed so costly. So how do you successfully trick your intelligence system to let go?

My personal strategy is to do something that takes very little energy but that effects a big initial forward movement. For example, at a time when I wanted to focus all of my attention on a new interest but found myself mesmerized by television, I simply gave my set away. Zero’s strategy utilized the same kind of energetic leverage but on a much grander scale: he quit his job and gave up his apartment, literally evicting himself out of his rut. Of course, once out, the real challenge of staying out begins. And that takes a skill that most people never cultivate — managing the discomfort of anxiety.

The rut we get into is our completely customized comfort zone. Within this predictable realm we’ve learned how to get our needs met while minimizing our energetic costs (felt as suffering) and maximizing our energetic gains (felt as pleasure). Life is safe within the confines of this zone, and the worst thing that’s likely to happen is that we’ll start to feel … well … confined. But if boredom finally prompts us to venture out into unknown territory, our intelligence system sounds a harsh alarm — a sympathetic nervous system response with its attendant anxiety — that urges us to go back to the safety of our cozy trench. This was a great safety feature for ancestral hominids, because unknown territories were likely to be dangerous places, but it’s overkill in the contemporary Western world and prevents us from living our lives fully. If we really want to get unstuck and stay that way, we need to find a way to greet the inevitable anxiety. Here are three strategies to keep you going:

First, try changing your interpretation of the adrenaline-induced bodily sensations (e.g., a racing heart rate, shortness of breath) from anxiety to excitement. You are on an adventure! The shift will feel true because both states actually are associated with the same sympathetic hormone (and, after all, the excitement you felt for your dream did initiate this process). At the same time, take 10 deep breaths to stimulate the vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate a relaxation response. And finally, remember that you have felt this way before and you’re still here. That’s what Zero said to himself repeatedly when he first got unstuck — that, and “zero ventured, zero gained.” Really.

You can contact Zero and/or follow his adventures at zerodean.com


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