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Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average and Do Work That Matters

Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average and Do Work That Matters

by Jon Acuff


Learn More | Meet Jon Acuff
If you every fly Korean Air, keep your eyes closed as you make your way to coach. You might have to feel your way there, but trust me, that momentary inconvenience is worth it. You do not want to see the first-class seats.

The challenge is that you enter from the front of the plane. If your eyes are open, you’re immediately thrust into an aeronautical wonderland. First class isn’t full of seats; it’s full of tiny pods of luxury. You have your own little sleeping cocoon in which to lounge away the sixteen-hour flight. And if you see these pleasure domes as you walk to your seat, you’re going to get sad.

So that you fully comprehend what’s happening as you pass through the seating classes, Korean Air color-codes the seats. The pleasure domes in first class are woven in a periwinkle blue fabric that seems to tickle you lightly and whisper, “Don’t you wish this flight were longer?” The next class of seats is light blue, like the color of an apron you’d buy at Williams-Sonoma after being wooed into the store by the smell of boysenberry muffins. The business class is dark blue, serious but still seriously comfortable. Finally, at the end of the color wheel—and back of the plane—you get to coach class, your seat, which is brown, the color of disappointment.

The other thing it’d be good for you to know—should you ever find yourself flying to Asia—is that Vietnam is not close to South Korea. I thought they were like Connecticut and Rhode Island. That maybe I could look out the window from the airport in Seoul and see Vietnam across the water. I was wrong.

After flying sixteen hours from Atlanta to South Korea, we had to fly another six hours from Seoul to Hanoi. We then boarded an overnight train to travel deeper into the country. I don’t know if there were periwinkle first class seats available on that train, but I do know we didn’t get them. The shared bathroom was just a metal hole in the floor that dropped straight onto the tracks. I thought it was kind of fun. My wife felt differently.

After a solid night of rumbling through moonlit mountains, we arrived in Sapa. From there we drove another seven hours on dirt roads overlooking cliffs. Imagine the most dangerous road you’ve ever been on, remove all the guardrails, and then add water buffalo.

Finally, after hours of breathtaking scenery punctuated by moments of sheer panic, we came upon something I’d never expected to see.

French motorcyclists.

My initial confusion was that they weren’t on skinny 10-speeds from the 1960s with long sticks of crusty French bread sticking out of wicker baskets, and none of them were wearing jaunty berets. (Everything I know about France I learned from puzzles. And it’s completely okay for me to poke fun at France. The only language my books have ever been translated into is German. I’m like Hasselhoff over there.)

Decked out in apocalyptic-looking safety gear and a week’s worth of dirt, they were obviously a long way from home. Lost in the deepest middle of nowhere I’d ever experienced, the bikers were hand-gesturing to some Vietnamese villagers huddled around a map that was unfolded on the handlebars of one of the bikes.

We pulled over to the side of the road to help them find their next destination. Steve, an American who had lived in Asia for eighteen years, looked out the bus window at the bikers’ map.

“Wow,” he said to Hua, our Vietnamese driver, “that is an amazing map. Look how detailed it is! We should get one of those.”

Then he paused just before lowering his window and said, “Then again, the best map in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t know where you are.”

Steve was right. Without a point of origin, even the best map is rendered useless. If you opened up the GPS on your phone right now and tried to get directions, the very first thing the phone would need to know is where you are. Google Earth can’t give you directions across the state or even across the street without a point of origin. Yet most of us, when it comes to figuring out where we’re headed in life, never stop to ask the simple question, “Where am I?”

We just keep marching forward, day after day, cubicle after cubicle, moving faster and faster but not really going anywhere. Eventually at the end of our lives we start to do some questioning. We finally pause long enough to re-examine our decisions and maybe even ask hard questions of young, single-browed authors on airplanes.

That’s what a grandmother in her early 70s did to me on a flight from Dallas to Baltimore. She was flying back from a gambling trip in Reno with her sister. They were two grandmothers on the run, laughing and joking with each other in the back of a Southwest plane. During the flight, I gave her a copy of my book Quitter. I promise, I don’t do that every time I fly. I don’t wear cargo pants full of my books and then say, “Oh, what’s this? How did this get in my pocket? That’s crazy! It’s my Wall Street Journal best-selling book! I’ll sign it for you, but please, no flash photography. It dries out my pores.”

But we had been talking about life and dreams, and giving her a copy of Quitter, which addresses both, seemed like an okay thing to do.

After she had been reading it for an hour, she leaned in to speak over the engine noise and ask me a question I wasn’t ready for.

“What do you do when all the excuses you used to not chase your dream are gone? What do you do then?”

There was sadness in her words. A sense of fear and resignation that seemed to suck all the joy out of a boisterous weekend trip with a sister. Sadder still, I didn’t have an answer for her. I didn’t know the answer, but I knew there was one.

There had to be, because I didn’t want you or me to get to 80 or 90 years old and realize we mortgaged the best years of our lives doing something we weren’t called to do. I didn’t want to look back on life and wonder where it all went.

That happened to me once when I was 30. Through a series of bad decisions, I finally woke up one day in a cubicle and realized I’d coasted through the last 10 years of my life. And I knew that same thing would happen again if I wasn’t careful.

Realizing where I was headed, I started to write about that woman’s question. I wrote 50,000 words trying to find the answer, but like most things in life, it snuck up on me when I was looking the other way.

One afternoon while meeting with a friend, I started to dissect Dave Ramsey’s life on a whiteboard. He’s been an incredibly successful author and businessman, something I aspire to be too. I was curious how he accomplished so much. As I started to map out the trajectory of his life, I made a pretty simple discovery about what it takes to be awesome. It’s not that complicated or unique; in fact, since the dawn of time, every awesome life has gone through the same five stages.

  1. Learning
  2. Editing
  3. Mastering
  4. Harvesting
  5. Guiding


Like a simple map through life, those are the five stages on the road to awesome. And until recently, they have matched up pretty closely with your age.

In your 20s, you resided in Learning.

You went to college, got a job, or joined the military. You didn’t yet know what you were made of, so you sampled many endeavors and did as much as you could to learn about yourself, the world around you, and where you best fit in.

In your 30s, you moved on up to Editing.

You started to focus on the handful of things that worked well in your 20s. You were not done learning, but you started editing down the list of things you thought were really important. You prioritized your passions. You eliminated old habits that wrecked you in your 20s and concentrated on doing more of the things you love and less of the things you hate. It was a winnowing period. You focused your career, your relationships, and every part of your life.

In your 40s, you ascended to Mastering.

You edited your life to the most important things in your 30s, and then it came time to master them. You were going to be an awesome parent, awesome friend, awesome employee, etc. You didn’t narrow your life further, you just had greater certainty about what you were good at and how to do it regularly. You were no longer the young upstart at work; you were the one with 15–20 years of experience. Tried and true. You started leading bigger projects and initiatives. You were not an expert yet, but you were next in line.

In your 50s, you basked in Harvesting.

The seeds you planted in your 20s, 30s and 40s finally began blooming. You made the most money in your career during this decade and reaped what you sowed. This wasn’t rocket science. If you spent your 30s and 40s working hard to be considered an expert in your field, you would obviously have more job opportunities than if you jumped around forty-seven times and blamed your bosses for “not recognizing your talent.” If you were deliberate about pouring into relationships in your 20s, 30s and 40s, guess what? You harvested abundant relationships in your 50s. When your collegiate son crashed his car, you harvested an outpouring of support and love. Lots of people came to the hospital, and someone probably even brought a casserole.

In your 60s, you entered a place of Guiding.

You retired with a gold watch and a ranch-style home in Florida. You were a grandfather or a grandmother. You were the elder statesman, the one with the wisdom. You got to give back generously to people who were traveling the path on which you spent forty-plus years. Corncob pipe whittling was not mandatory but highly likely. If you wanted to achieve awesomeness, that’s the path you followed. Tens of thousands of people have proven it’s the way to awesome.

If it’s that easy to walk down the path though, if the steps are so clearly marked, why don’t more people do it? Well, the bad news is it’s not the only path on the map. And, like a back road through the mountains, the path to awesome is much narrower than the other, more common path.

Billions of people have traveled and continue to travel the other path, and it grows wider every year. The terrain is easy, grassy even, and after a brief incline it follows a safe and steady decline that mostly allows for casual coasting.

It sounds nice. It feels effortless when you’re on it.

The trouble is that on this wide path, you don’t end up at awesome. You just end up at old. That path is called “average.”

The trickiest thing is that both paths begin in the same place. And both paths end in harvesting and guiding.

The key difference is that if you’ve trekked the path of awesome, the harvest is abundant and you will guide other people down their own abundant paths. If, on the other hand, you’ve coasted the path of average, never daring to believe you could learn, edit, and master your own bit of awesomeness, you will harvest a crop neither you nor anyone else desires. And you will then guide, but instead of illuminating an awesome path for others, you’ll become a lighthouse indicating the rocks on which you crashed your life.

You might not have a haunted house or an abnormally large furnace in the basement a la The Burbs, but people will still refer to you in hushed tones like they did my old neighbors.

They grew so bitter that they eventually decided to spend their time making sure any ball or Frisbee that lighted upon their lawn was quickly confiscated and cataloged. After a few years of draining the entire neighborhood of toys, they took my friend Marc to court, at which point they presented all their evidence. I can only imagine the jury’s faces as they were presented with Wiffle Balls bearing dates on them.

Is that what you want your life to come to? Wiffle Ball CSI? Me neither.

So then why do most people decide to travel down the average path?

The truth is they don’t decide. The only thing you have to do on the average path is not die.

You graduate from high school or college and effectively shift into neutral. Sure, you’re not moving that fast but you’re getting great gas mileage and you are making some progress, if you want to call it that. You’re definitely getting older and that means something, right? With age comes wisdom? Not necessarily. Especially if you’re coasting. Eventually, you’ll roll your way right into the grave.

The average path is the easier of the two paths, and it’s dangerously comfortable. I spent many years on it without realizing I’d been there a week.

The awesome path?

It is dangerous too—but the good kind of dangerous. The kind of dangerous through which all great accomplishments must travel. On it are tall mountains, rocky walls, and even an occasional dragon. You’re going to get bloodied, your discipline will be tested, and your dreams will be challenged a thousand times over. But ohhhh, it is awesome. And here’s the kicker: when I say it’s awesome, I don’t mean “eventually” awesome. I’m talking right-this-second awesome.

I’d never write a book that said, “In forty years you’ll get to harvest some amazing stuff in your life if you’ll just suck it up for four decades.” I don’t want a life like that. Why would I convince you that you needed one?

AWESOME IS AVAILABLE LIKE NEVER BEFORE

The opportunity and speed with which you can reach awesome has never been greater. Three forces of nature have collided to create a once-in-a-century storm even bigger than the one Patrick Swayze surfed at the end of Point Break. (Google it.)

1. Retirement is dead.

My friend Luke’s mom was a teacher at the same school for twenty-eight years. She was going to retire eventually because that’s what you did. You worked in one place, trusted in Social Security, and then retired comfortably in a house that had accrued value over a few decades. Then she got laid off. Suddenly, like millions of people in their 40s and 50s, she found herself facing the daunting task of starting a new career or what people are labeling an “encore career.” In her mid-50s, she had to be 20 again. She’s not alone. In 2011, 20% of new entrepreneurs were between the ages of 55 and 64.1

While the market will recover, the ideals won’t. The government, the company, the house—you can’t rely on them for warmth when you tuck into your 60s for a long winter’s nap. In addition, some experts believe the retirement age will eventually stretch to 70 or 80.2 That’s decades longer than the finish line my wife’s grandfather crossed. For a generation in their 50s, that means starting over. For a generation in their 30s and 40s, that means aiming for a completely different finish line. Retirement is dead.

2. Hope is boss.

Do you know how many people in my college graduating class of 1998 launched projects to build wells in Africa? Do you know how many asked what percentage of their hoodie purchase was going to Haiti? Do you know how many wore TOMS shoes? The answer in each case is zero. Changing the world was something you cared about eventually, not right away, and brilliant books reflected that. In Half Time, Bob Buford told Boomers that after spending the first half of their life focused on success, it was time to spend the second half focused on significance and changing the world. If you told a 22-year-old today that before he can change the world he has to work for twenty years, he’d giggle at you. Generation Y, and Generation X as they are inspired by the shift in culture, want meaning now, not eventually. Hope is boss.

3. Anyone can play.

In 2000, I paid a designer $2,000 to build me a website. He charged by the page and learned how to develop it by reading a book. A book! Isn’t that adorable? We thought the dawn of the Internet removed all the gatekeepers. It didn’t. It just introduced new gatekeepers. Like developers and designers and social media experts. Those days are waning though. Moms are making millions on blogs. Teenagers are starting businesses on Facebook. People are building empires on Pinterest. Specialists still exist, but technology is finally available to the entire population. Anyone can play.

I’m not a futurist. I’m a presentist, which isn’t even a real word but sounds less lame than “right nowist.” Those three forces I just described aren’t on the horizon. They are the horizon—for you and me and anyone who is willing to escape average.

As a result, you can be more awesome, more often, a whole lot faster today.

The Internet revolution isn’t over. It’s barely started. And one of the biggest things it’s done is radically shorten the path to reaching your dreams.

While the fives stages of awesome have held true for decades, reaching awesome used to be primarily a post mid-life accomplishment. You had to gain experience plus earn money or pedigree or degrees from institutes where they wear ascots and play, not just eat, squash. The path to awesome was decades long and there was little you could do to shorten it. Everyone had to put in his or her time.

The Internet, and especially social media, has changed that. You just have to find your starting point and stay on the right path.

In 2008, I started a blog in my kitchen. I didn’t have a fancy design. I didn’t have any photos. I didn’t have any sort of tech-savvy skills that made me a perfect candidate for social media. I used the free template that Blogspot offered, and I didn’t even start with an original idea. There was another site called Stuff White People Like. It was a satire of Caucasia. I thought it would be funny to create a Christian version of that site. So I did, with the expectation that I’d get bored of it in a week or two and move on. After all, the other fifty horrible URLs I had registered at GoDaddy.com didn’t sustain a whole lot of momentum. “WordNinja.com” went nowhere.

I told 100 friends about the site and started writing goofy paragraphs. On the eighth day of its existence, 4,000 people from around the world showed up to read it. Turns out the 100 friends had passed the URL to 100 friends who had passed the URL to 100 friends who eventually told people in Singapore to read it.

Can you even begin to fathom how I would have shared my ideas with 4,000 people in eight days for free thirty years ago? What would I have done, a door-to-door marketing campaign? Me just knocking on people’s front doors and saying, “Hi, I have some ideas about how it’s weird that some people front hug you and other people side hug you. It’s kind of this ‘I like you enough to give you one arm of appreciation but let’s not get all crazy and embrace with both arms.’ Can I please come sit in your living room and read you some of my other ideas? When we’re done, do you mind calling your friends on your rotary phone, which is bolted to your kitchen wall, to let them know I am available for home readings of my ideas? Also, do you know anyone in other countries, like Singapore for instance? Do you mind giving them a ring too? Thanks!”

That would have never worked. And if that were my only path to awesome, I’d still be on the average path. A few years ago, you and I had only a few chances to find our path to an awesome life. Ultimately, you just hoped you picked the right track when you were young and got a big break along the way.

It’s not that we all chose average. No one aims for that in the beginning. Nobody says, “I’m going to be average for sixty-five years and then die!” But not long ago, the path to awesome was so long and arduous that most of us chose not to start. That, or we tried, and failed, to find a shortcut.

I looked at life that way, too, until 2008.

That’s the year I discovered the path to awesome had changed. Namely, it was something that could be traveled much more quickly, before eyelid wrinkles started to appear. I started by taking small steps—steps that I eventually learned social media could greatly accelerate.

After my blog started to grow a little, I thought it might make for an interesting book. Having spent a decade on the average path, I tried a very average way to get it published. I asked a friend who worked at a big church if he knew anyone at any of the major publishers. He had a friend who had a friend at one of the largest publishers on the planet. He told her about my book idea and asked if she would pass the idea to the publisher. She did, and this is her verbatim response:

I actually mentioned this (Jon’s book) to the publisher this morning on a call I had with them, and to be honest, they feel pretty full up right now. Their recommendation would be to continue to see how the blog readership goes and perhaps explore connecting with a smaller, boutique publishing house that could give him the attention he wants and deserves if this is indeed his calling.

Not what you want to hear, but that is what they suggested at this time.


That’s fancy talk for “no.”

That’s where the average path got me, and it makes sense. Who did I think I was to write a book? I’d never written a book before. I’d never spoken publically before. I’d never done anything in my entire life that would make me attractive to a publisher.

If I stayed on the average path, the steps I’d take to get a book published were pretty clear. I’d spend my 30s slowly building a name for myself. I’d start going to writers’ conferences. I’d buy a big thick book with publishers’ addresses in it and mail off my manuscript a thousand times. I’d join a writers’ circle and maybe figure out a way to self-publish a few of my ideas and call them scholarly articles. In my 40s, I’d keep plugging away at my manuscript, count my rejection letters, grow a frustrated writer’s beard, and hope that in my 50s I had paid enough dues to get a book published. In my 60s, I’d then get to sit my grandkids on my knee, set aside my corncob pipe, and tell them an epic 40-year yarn called, “How Grandpa Finally Got His Book Published.” It would teach them perseverance, theoretically.

Ugh.

That’s the average path. Depressing, right?

Fortunately for you and me, we’re growing up in the middle of a revolution. (I use that word sparingly. Whenever anotherauthor tells me, “This isn’t a book; this is a revolution!” I know it’s just a book.)

Social media gave me a chance to build a platform. For free. The only costs were time and hustle. Social media gave me access to an audience. Social media gave me a public arena to hone my writing skills with instant, international feedback.

Social media offered me an opportunity to become a legitimate author much sooner than 50 years old.

I accepted the challenge and jumped in with both feet.

A few months later, my agent and I submitted my book proposal back to publishers. Only this time I included information about my blog audience. Number of readers, number of comments, number of fans in numbers of countries. That completely changed the conversation.

I was no longer invisible. I was no longer a nobody with an idea. I was a writer with proven skills as evidenced by a quantifiable readership. As a result, two publishers bid for the book. Guess who won? Guess who published my first book?

The same publisher who initially rejected it via my friend.

My story isn’t that unique or that impressive. Pebble Technology, the company that created a customizable wristwatch that few had ever heard of, raised $10.2 million from more than 68,000 supporters on www.kickstarter.com.3 They raised their first million in 28 hours. Can you imagine how long it would have taken to find 68,000 donors without the tools of the Internet?

Clearly there are now ways to accelerate your life down the path to awesome, even if you never use social media. (If you decide to use social media though, I put my top 10 tips on page XX.) Once you know how the map works, you can shorten the time you spend in each destination. You can game the map. You don’t have to wait until you are 50 to harvest. You don’t have to wait until you are 40 to be an expert. And you don’t have to be 20 to start a new adventure.

WE ALL USED TO BE AWESOME.

Awesome is a lot simpler than you think, because you used to know awesome quite well.

Everyone did at one point.

Especially when we were kids.

I was reminded of this one night as I was walking down the hall at home. My daughters were brushing their teeth, an event that usually boils over to an international crisis. This time, though, they weren’t fighting for sink space, they were talking literature.

I heard L.E., my 9-year-old, say to her little sister, McRae, “Did you know that the guy who wrote The Twits also wrote James and the Giant Peach?”

I heard McRae respond, “I know! I love that guy. He’s got a great imagination, like me.”

“Like me.”

What a powerful declaration.

Roald Dahl has been called the greatest storyteller of our generation. He also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He’s sold millions and millions of books. And in McRae’s little 6-year-old mind, his imagination is on par with hers. He’s her peer.

You used to believe like that too. You used to turn sticks into swords or dirty flip flops into glass slippers. You climbed trees and made forts and thought being a doctor wasn’t out of reach. Nothing was out of reach.

Then, somewhere along the way, you lost it.

Maybe someone who mattered to you told you that your version of awesome didn’t matter. When my friend Liz was in the eighth grade, she loved to dance. It was all she ever did. One day, her mom pulled her aside and said, “You know you’re not going to be a Rockette, right? You know that’s not in the cards for you, right?”

Do you think Liz danced a whole lot after that? Of course not. She gave up her dream of awesome that day.

As a parent, I understand the temptation to tell your kid something like that. You don’t want Simon Cowell to be the first person who introduces your daughter to the idea that she can’t sing. But there’s an inherent problem with this approach to life. When a parent, a boss, a teacher, a spouse or a friend tells you what you can’t be, they’re predicting a future they don’t control. They don’t know what 25 or 35 or 55 looks like for you.

What if, when he didn’t make the varsity basketball team his sophomore year of high school, Michael Jordan’s dad had pulled him aside, and, putting his arm around a young Michael, said, “You know you’re not going to play in the NBA, right? You know that’s not in the cards for you, don’t you?”

Maybe your mom never told you that your dream was too big, but chances are you’ve been telling yourself that for years— maybe decades. The way your brain developed certainly hasn’t helped the cause.

When you were young, your right hemisphere or “right brain” was in full force. It was the guy in charge, and it was the part of your brain that embraced curiosity and adventure and was constantly unafraid to ask Why? and Why not? Your brain was this way when you were a child because you were learning at a rapid clip. You were learning language and the laws of physics and the elements of balance. You had to be unguarded so you could absorb everything—even some pain here and there—so you would know how to thrive in this land called life-outside-the-womb.

But as you grew older, the other hemisphere, the “left brain” began to gain a voice. It began to say things like, “That’s impossible,” or, “They will laugh at you,” or, “Don’t be foolish.” Your left brain plays an important role in your thinking because it is the voice that teaches you to not touch the hot stove or jump off the top stair like you are a superhero. Unfortunately, it can also make a very logical and compelling argument that what it says is final. As we grew up, most of us came to believe the left brain’s assertions, and as a result we lost the sense that awesome was around the corner. Instead, we started to believe that awesome was not in the cards for us or that it was illogical or simply “childish.”

The good news is we can recover those childlike notions of grandeur. But it takes more than simply acting like a child again. You know some things as an adult that you couldn’t have known as a child. And you possess some skills that no child can develop. While I encourage you to think like my daughter does about the famous author—because your perception does truly fuel your reality—the best news is that now you can apply that thinking like an adult. The road to awesome is still accessible. Now, as an adult, you have the tools to head down it immediately.

We’ve been told our whole lives that our 20s are when we begin down our career paths. And our 60s are the end of the road. But that timeline is no longer the only valid one. In fact, that timeline is no longer typical.

Age is no longer the primary factor that determines where you are on the map. Life is now less about how old you are and more about when you decide to live.

If you’re 45 and looking for a career shift after realizing you don’t love what you do, you’re back in your 20s. It’s time to start.

If you’re 33 and haven’t found something you’re really passionate about, you’re still in your 20s. It’s time to start.

If you’re 52 and embarking on a new career because your job (and maybe your entire industry) disappeared, you’ve returned to your 20s. It’s time to start.

If you’re 22, well that one seems really obvious, doesn’t it? You’re literally in your 20s. It’s time to start.

Regardless of your age or station in life, it all comes down to one simple truth, you just have to start.


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