martha beck advice
Photo: Ann Cutting
I've always loved the way cartoon characters run right off cliffs, then look down for a hapless frozen moment before plummeting into the abyss. That's the worst-case scenario we all fear when we take a leap of faith. If you've taken one recently—fallen in love, say, or adopted a llama or put a deposit on a Harley-Davidson Wide Glide in ember red with pink flames—you know perfectly well what I mean. If you haven't, don't worry; life will lead you to a precipice soon enough. It always does. Which is why I'm here today to share everything I know about the art of the leap, from distinguishing between noble risks and idiocy to mastering the mechanics of the jump to dealing with the naysayers who would scare you into never leaving the ground.

The 411 on My Current LOF
My current leap of faith is really the same old story. You know, the one where you wake up every few mornings weirdly convinced that you're in the California mountains even though you've hardly ever visited California, let alone its mountains, and this odd phenomenon continues on and off for about 20 years, and then you actually find this place where part of you feels as if it's always lived, so you donate most of your possessions to Goodwill and spend all your money moving to a piece of property where you're more likely to run across a Sasquatch than another human? That one.

The tragic thing is, I'm not kidding. This property is now mine.

Fortunately, I'm a frequent flier when it comes to leaps of faith (not because I'm brave or bold but because I seem to be mentally ill), so I have some confidence in saying that my recent behavior entails more than horrific financial planning. In fact, I believe my move has the hallmarks that distinguish a true leap of faith from sheer stupidity.

How to Tell a Leap of Faith from a Stupid Decision
Some psychologists classify every emotion as either love (attraction) or fear (aversion). It's not unusual for humans to base almost every decision on fear: fear of rejection, fear of poverty, fear of looking dumb, and so on. But after coaching thousands of people, I've seen that fear-based decisions lead to hollow victories at best, endless regret at worst. Only love-based decisions create lasting happiness. That's why the accountant—oops, make that poet—Sara Teasdale advised, "Spend all you have for loveliness, / Buy it and never count the cost." I'm with her all the way. Loveliness—emphasis on "love"—is the only thing worth buying.

Now, discriminating between fear-based and love-based decisions can be confusing, because leaps of faith are frightening even when the choice to make them is based on love. (Just because you really want to have a baby or run your own business doesn't mean going into labor or launching a startup isn't terrifying.) You can gain more clarity by getting into the habit of imagining the choices you'd make if you had no fear—of failing, of losing, of being alone, of disapproval. Take a minute now to practice: What clothes would you wear tomorrow if everyone were sure to approve? What music would you listen to today if nobody else were around—not even in your mind? What books, movies, or food would you enjoy if no one ever judged you?

Going to a fearless place in your imagination will show you clearly which decisions still have fire and energy, and which lose steam without anxiety as their fuel. The former are endogenous—meaning they arise from your inner essence, not from external pressures—and they're the foundation of every great leap.

Love-based choices have one more quality their fear-based counterparts lack: They're enduring. And in this way, they make us behave like heroes—at least the kind of heroes you find in epics like The Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings. Scholars have broken down the type of story known as the hero's saga into standard parts, beginning with the hero's feeling a "call to adventure." The next step is the "refusal of the call," wherein the hero says, "Excuse me? Do I look stupid?" and goes on with normal life. Or tries to, anyway. But the calls won't stop. The same is true for any leap worth making. The calls keep coming, tapping us on the shoulder, chirping, "Hello! Me again!" until we either give in or start drinking cough syrup straight from the bottle.

In your case, the call may be a historic role model you can't stop wanting to emulate. Or an "unattainable" purpose or profession that tugs at you like a magnet. Maybe you have weird premonitions of living in Sasquatch country (see you here soon!). If following your heart's desire seems crazy but not following it is becoming more and more difficult with every passing week or month or year, your choices come down to taking a leap of faith or living with the regret of never having tried. Wouldn't you rather jump?

Next: How to get off the ground

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