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
How to Get Off the Ground
My clients always expect a clear and perfect moment for a leap of faith, when the seas will part, Gandalf will arrive, and action will become inevitable. I wish. The real mechanics of a leap are so much more ordinary. All you have to do, as any long-term couple knows, is set a date. The leap from your mind to your calendar is the moment of commitment. It's that simple.

Right now, set a date for any action you can take that will move you toward your heart's desire. Then tell people about it. Those same external opinions that you must ignore when making a choice can help immensely once you've chosen. My leap of faith started the day I made an appointment with a couple of real estate agents to view properties in the California woods. I still thought I was crazy, but they didn't. The combination of my heart's desire pushing from inside and various strangers pressuring me from outside kept me in motion. This is why weddings are public: The couple could bolt from the altar, but the combination of an endogenous desire and social pressure is almost always irresistible.

You'll find that many people, especially strangers, will happily support your decision to take a leap of faith. But one more hurdle remains: the very persuasive people who will not.

How to Handle the Naysayers
The hero in a classic hero's saga initially refuses the call to adventure partly on the advice of family and friends. Few people, after all, want a beloved child, spouse, or companion to set off on a possibly dangerous quest—and the nearer and dearer they are, the more likely it is that they'll protest. It takes serious cojones to leap when the people you most trust are against it. But remember, fear makes bad decisions, whether it's your fear or someone else's. Remember, too, that protective fear isn't a manifestation of love but a sort of mutation of it. So instead of giving up on your leap when everyone around you is trying to ground you, do this:
  1. Think back to a flying leap that proved to be a great decision despite your initial fears: You adopted your daughter, left the security of your old job for the opportunity of a new one, got the radically different haircut that became your signature look. Recall the frightening, liberating thrill of it all.
  2. Now think back to what I call a fettered lump time, when you retreated from your heart's desire in order to calm another person's fear. Feel the dullness, the disappointment, even the resentment.
  3. Switch back and forth between these two sensations until they're clear and vivid.
  4. If your current naysayer's advice gives you the flying-leap feeling, listen carefully; his or her advice could make your leap cleaner.
  5. If the naysayer's advice feels like the fettered lump, take a deep breath and become steady and serene (hint: you'll have to fake it). Calm your loved ones. Tell them all is well. This steadfast reassurance is all they really want.
How to Come In for a Landing
Some cartoon characters whip out hankies, improvise parachutes, and float daintily to Earth. Others crash-land and pop up only slightly woozy. The more leaps of faith you take, the more you'll find your own hankies—ways of solving problems when they appear. When you crash, you'll just keep getting better at the pop-up. You'll live through every leap except the big one at the end. And even if you never leap, you'll die anyway.

This is the thinking that has brought me here, to a little house in the big woods where I'm told a repairman was recently attacked by a cougar. Personally, I think that's just a fear-based urban myth—and that he was actually attacked by a Sasquatch. It's important to get these details right as I stand in the air, looking around at my new home, at my dream come true, at the long stretch of nothing beneath my feet.

Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).

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