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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. 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.
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 back flip!” 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 back flip.
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 Oak 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 felt bad that he stopped himself, choosing safe mediocrity instead of risking greatness.
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. You can choose how you react to life’s obstacles. You can choose to push through your fear instead of regulating yourself unnecessarily.
Here’s a challenge: Today, notice how often you use fear to control your behavior. Notice how you choose to be mediocre instead of great. 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 back flip or climb a sand dune, but you are the only thing stopping yourself. Choose not to be mediocre. Choose to be great.