Last summer, we banned personal electronics from our family vacation—no laptops, iPods, video games or other devices. Instead we played cards, read books and watched the Olympics.
The first book on my list was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which I’d read for college years ago. I wanted to reread the 1957 novel because it was being discussed as the presidential race heated up in August 2012. The book contends that when a government regulates every aspect of your life and business, mediocrity sets in.
The funny thing is, as I revisited Atlas Shrugged, I kept drawing parallels between excessive government regulation and excessive personal regulation. Government laws control and regulate behavior just as you use fear to regulate yourself. To be great, you have to let go of your fears.
Choosing greatness in life
One night on vacation, we watched the Olympic finals in men’s diving on TV. Our mesmerized 7-year-old, Oakley, declared, “Tomorrow I’m going to do a backflip!” He does them on our trampoline at home, so I figured this would be a cinch. The next morning, Oakley and his college-bound cousin Peter (a trick skier and diver) headed to the pool. Peter was going to teach Oakley to do that backflip.
They started on the side of the pool, rolling backward off the edge (like a ball) and into the water about a dozen times. Next they did a back flop and then a back dive. Once Oakley had the back dive perfected off the side, Peter moved him up to the diving board to repeat the progression. After about 90 minutes and many back dives, Oakley was ready. Peter gave a final demonstration: “You just have to let go and do it, Oak,” and he swung his arms into the air, shouted “look for the water,” launched himself off the board and landed feet-first in the pool.
Then the 4-foot Oakley got in position on the board: on his toes, knees bent, arms back, head up. He smiled. But after a few seconds, he said, “I can’t do it. I’m too little.”
A few years back, I remember consoling Oakley because he was too short for certain rides at an amusement park. Using rulers to measure, park personnel regulate the rides to ensure safety. But now Oakley was regulating himself. His fear controlled his behavior. He later felt bad that he had stopped himself, choosing safe mediocrity instead of risking greatness.
Don’t let fear hold you back
We all do it. I chose mediocrity when I told myself I was too hot and too tired to keep climbing the Sleeping Bear sand dunes—and I turned back with the peak in sight. I regulated myself.
The key is to recognize when you’re choosing mediocrity. You have free will. You can choose what you do for a living and how you react to life’s obstacles. And you can choose to push through your fear instead of regulating yourself unnecessarily. You can choose greatness.
Here’s a challenge: Today, notice how often you use fear to control your behavior. Notice how you choose mediocrity instead of greatness. Then try this: Don’t start another project; finish one you’ve blown off. Don’t stop yourself; push yourself forward.
It might be hard to perfect a backflip or climb a sand dune, but you are the only thing stopping yourself. Choose not to be mediocre. Choose to be great.
This article was published in October 2012 and has been updated. Photo by mavo/Shutterstock