What Smokers Can Teach Us

My friend Matt is one of those guys who loves to debate. Case in point, he is a fierce defender of smokers. Which would be fine except that he, personally, finds cigarette smoke practically vomit-inducing. I challenged him frequently on this.

"Each cigarette takes something like eleven minutes off your life," I told him a while back, armed with a BBC report I'd seen.

"Yeah, but think about which eleven minutes that is," Matt countered. "You're probably lying in a hospital bed somewhere, old and coughing. I'd rather look cool and enjoy a cigarette now and lose those last eleven minutes."

"You don't even smoke!"

He shrugged. "Well I'm just sayin'."

As I was driving home that day, mentally poking holes in his ridiculous argument (there is nothing good about lung cancer), I realized that Matt was using this extreme point to make a larger point:

If you're constantly preparing to enjoy your life later, you're not enjoying your life.

Matt happens to know more about this principle than most people. A few years ago, he left a very well paid job as a lawyer because he wanted to open a dive shop on a beach in Thailand.

A dive shop. In Thailand.

"I'm going to give it a year to see if I can make it work," he told a couple of us one night.

"You can't be serious," said our other friend, who I'll call Tony. Tony worked at the same law firm as Matt, and seemed to take Matt's news as a personal affront. "You've been killing yourself for four years at this firm -- when you come back, you're going to be at least a year behind, probably more." Tony looked at me for support. "Right? This is crazy, right?"

"That's the risk," Matt said, taking a sip of his beer.

"But... I mean... What if it doesn't work?" Tony asked.

Matt put down his beer and smiled. "What if it does?" he asked.

This was the trade-off Matt was making. He had decided that he was going to try out his dream job for a year, try to make it work. If it all fell apart, then he would have lost a year or more. In a law firm, that's a pretty big deal.

But Matt saw nothing but upside. If he could make it work, he would have created a pretty extraordinary life for himself. If it didn't, well, he would come back and find a job. He would lose a year or two, and he'd be a few rungs lower on the law firm ladder. He didn't want that to happen. But more than that, he wanted to make sure he wasn't spending his whole life preparing for a good life later. He wanted that now, while he was still young. He wasn't just taking a random risk -- it was a risk to try to make his life amazing.

"The only thing that would hold me back from doing this," he told me later that night, after Tony had left, "is the fear that I would fail and have to come back to New York and face everybody. And you know what? I really do fear that -- I worry that people will think I'm a failure. But I also know if I didn't do it for that reason, I'd always regret it."

I can't tell you how much I admire that.

I have talked to a lot of people about this issue. And incredibly, I have never found even a single person -- not a single one -- who has ever regretted taking a risk to try to live out a dream of theirs. Not even among the folks who don't succeed.

That includes Matt. Matt did go down to Thailand. He worked in a dive shop for a year, and decided to come back a year later. He ended up getting out of law and working for an international beverage company, where he gets to travel all the time. He loves his new life. Loves it.

What does that tell me?

It tells me that fear of risk-taking is a powerful force. And look -- I give into it all the time. But the question I ask myself is this: If I fail at this, is the worst thing that I'll be a year or two behind? It's pretty much always yes. And that is a pretty good trade to have a shot at living out a dream.

I don't want to minimize the power of fear. But I want to stop asking "What if it doesn't work?" and start asking "What if it does?"

Also -- don't smoke. It's stupid. I don't care what Matt says.