170: No Guarantees

170: No Guarantees


Facing uncertainty with the help of Death, Harrison Ford, and Carpentry.

Cultivating Resilience is a weekly newsletter about rebounding from setbacks and reinventing the future—by 3x founder and executive coach Jason Shen.

My dear friend Belinda hosts a meditation group called "Potluck & Sit" that meets each Saturday [link] and this week the guided meditation reflected on the uncertainty of death. We know that our lives will end, that Death will come for us but not when, where, or how.

Rather than being a morose thought, we can see it as a neutral one, perhaps even freeing. A great swordsman once said that "to win any battle, you must fight as if you are already dead." Death is the great equalizer—it comes for us all, so why not go all out when you can?

When we plant a seed, we do not know how it will grow.  When we plan an outdoor event more than a week out, we have little certainty about the weather conditions on that day. And when we pursue a deeply held goal or reach for something beyond ourselves, we have no guarantee of success.

Many of the conversations I have with leaders, whether my coaching clients or otherwise, revolve around how they are dealing with risk, uncertainty, and the future.

  • Leaving a stable tech job for a sabbatical and hoping that a new career that is rewarding both financially and creatively will emerge
  • Preparing to raise funding to grow a new venture, asking for a sum beyond what they've ever pitched before
  • Learning to juggle new responsibilities as an agency founder without disappointing your clients, partners, or family in the process
  • Discussing work contingency plans with a coworker who faces the possibility of deep grief and loss in their personal life

It is difficult to walk through the fog, not knowing how long we must navigate this period of uncertainty until the mist clears and we can see ahead. When I find myself in this place, as in like now, I turn to inspiration from the lives of others.

Harrison Ford has a great profile out in Esquire [link] to promote the fourth and likely final installment of Indiana Jones. And after four decades in the public limelight, it's easy to forget that in his late 20's, he was a working actor who took up carpentry to support his growing family between gigs. He did not have his first hit until Star Wars, at 35, and true stardom only began at 39 with Indiana Jones.

There was no certainty that Ford would become the megastar that he was, and his casting in George Lucas's American Graffiti, which came out just before Star Wars, was somewhat of a fluke. From the profile:

A friend who had designed the millwork for the entrance to Francis Ford Coppola’s offices couldn’t find a carpenter to install it. “He appealed to me,” Ford says. “I said I would do it but only at night, when no one was around, because I didn’t want to be that guy—I wanted them to think of me as an actor, which I was. I did the job. While I’m finishing up, first thing in the morning in walked George Lucas and Richard Dreyfuss to begin the process of meeting people for Star Wars. George had told our agents he wanted new faces, not the same people from American Graffiti. I was there with my tool belt on, sweeping up, said hello, chatted, and that was it.

“Later, I was asked by the producer to help them read lines with candidates for all the parts. Don’t know whether I read with people who were reading for Han Solo—can’t remember. I read with quite a few princesses. But there was no indication or forewarning that I might be considered for this part. It was just a favor. And then of course they offered me the part.”

Carpentry sustained Ford, but how do sustain ourselves? How do we meet both our material needs—housing, food, and caring for those that depend on us, and our immaterial ones—courage, patience, hope?

What are the daily practices that can renew these resources within us? A few come to mind:

  • Connecting with a community that's in your shoes. The magic of the internet means there are groups for sabbaticants, writers, founders, investors and all the rest. Remind youself that you are not alone.
  • Making something tangible that moves your work forward—shipping code, writing words, making art, spending time on your chosen endeavor. You must be the kind of person who does what you seek to achieve.
  • Reflecting on the times in the past when you've bet on yourself, believed when others didn't, and found yourself in the black. Remembering that you've done it before and you can do it again.

And if money is truly the issue, maybe getting some gig work isn't the worst thing in the world. Ford again on carpentry:

"Through carpentry I fed my family and began to pick and choose from among the roles offered. I could afford to hold out until something better came along. But I never gave up my ambition to be an actor. I was frustrated but never felt defeated by my frustration." [link]

Stress, struggle, and frustration are, like death, inevitable in the pursuit of greatness but if we can hold that experience yet not be defeated, we give ourselves the best chance to land on our feet.

Take the leap,


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