Joshua Keel

Courage and Nausea

January 5, 2020

I just wanted to remind you that courage sometimes looks like nausea. And it’s ok. That’s normal. Just because there are tears and vomit doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. You might be doing exactly the thing you need to be doing to get where you want to go.

– Jillian Johnsrud

It has taken me years to learn that art is hard. Anything worth doing tends to be hard—romantic relationships, starting a business, supporting a loved one through loss and grief—all incredibly tough at times. When you see someone who is rocking out and things look easy for them, just remember that their life probably isn’t easy at all.

When people do amazing things, they’re often facing down a shitload of fear. They are behaving courageously in the face of an inner surge of doubt and uncertainty. It’s not always fun, sunshine and rainbows. In fact, sometimes courage looks like nausea, as Johnsrud so perfectly put it.

When things in your life are hard—when you don’t know the way forward, and the challenges come fast and furious—it’s not a signal to quit. There will always be doubt.

You can be passionate about something and still doubt yourself. Half the time, you doubt that you even give one fuck about it. That’s normal.

The overwhelming, implicit message of our culture is that if you have doubts, that’s a bad sign. Something must not be right. This isn’t the right romantic relationship, or business idea, or creative pursuit for you. Doubt means don’t.

By this metric, you’d have to have 100% confidence in every decision you make in order to get through the day. But our evolved monkey minds are not programmed for certainty. Fear, anxiety, doubt and misgiving are frustratingly wired in.

Ape that you are, if you want to do something with your life anyway—if you want to have a great and satisfying relationship, or create an amazing business, or show up and do the work of your art every day—you’ve got to learn how to cope with doubt.

How? Recognize that it’s not the enemy. Doubt doesn’t mean don’t. Doubt doesn’t mean much at all, really. Doubt is just a thought, and we take thoughts way too seriously. We give them power they don’t have.

Thoughts are just passing phenomena, impotent in themselves. They can be questioned, dismantled, and dismissed. Or simply allowed to exist, hanging around as you go about the business of getting shit done, making an impact and being a badass.

Steven Pressfield brought us the concept of Resistance in his amazing book The War of Art. Resistance is the force inside all of us that wants to keep us from doing our work: the work we were born to do, that wells up inside us and struggles to break out into the world.

Ignore the voice of Resistance and get busy instead. Don’t know what to do? Follow your best lead, and do something. In the act of doing, clarity will come.

Clarity rarely comes when we’re sitting still, worried about the next thing. Clarity craves motion and momentum.

I have tremendous clarity about my weekly newsletter because I have years of struggle under my belt. I have so many failed attempts, false starts and frustrations in the bank.

I also have momentum. I’ve been at this weekly writing gig for months, one of the best streaks I’ve ever had. The clarity that tells me this is important, keep writing, is created and sustained by doing the work itself.

Every weekend I sit down at my laptop like I am right now, and I know I’ve got to pound it out. I’ll spend two or three hours figuring out what I have to say, even when it feels like I have nothing to say. One week I’m flying high, words pouring from my fingers; the next I stare blankly at the screen, muddle through, and move on.

This newsletter doesn’t represent my life’s work. It’s not The Thing that will bring me wealth, satisfaction and joy. It’s just an attempt, a stab at making something meaningful.

And in the deepest caverns of my heart, living below layers of self-doubt, fear and uncertainty, lies the spark of a conviction that I must create, that these words need to be said, and that I will only be fulfilled by learning to ignore the minions of doubt and soothsayers of doom.

Pressfield was right about Resistance. My mentor-from-afar Sheryl Paul is right that doubt does not mean don’t. I just wish it hadn’t taken me the better part of the last decade to learn the lesson.

Doubt will always be there, so take courage. Face your gut-wrenching, nauseating fear and do what needs to be done anyway. And see if you don’t find fulfillment waiting on the other side, when the work is complete, and you learn that the demons of doubt were only phantoms.

Remember, “Just because there are tears and vomit doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.”