The Secret To Achieving Goals: Survive the Cannibals

If there is a fear of falling, the only safety consists in deliberately jumping.  – Carl Jung

Our passions and goals don’t happen when specific aspects of life align. They arrive like in-laws who show up unannounced when you haven’t showered and the house is a disaster.

Dreams don’t come with magical countdowns that tell us when it’s time to follow after them. No, they’re like lightning bolts. To catch them, we must be willing to charge through fears, jump, dive, and chase after our dreams as if our lives depended on them.

Let me tell you a story.

When Dreams Come Calling

In Spring 2007, I received a surprise call from an independent film producer in Denver, Colorado. He was looking for a screenwriter to adapt a book to a full-length film screenplay. He had a small film studio, and when my sister discovered he was looking for a writer, she recommended me.

She knew I had always harbored a desire to become a film director, and this was my chance to get my foot in the door. Hollywood is a fickle town, and legitimate work usually comes from knowing the right people. So here I was, for the first time in my life, talking to an actual producer, being offered the chance to write a legitimate film script.

I had never read a screenplay, much less knew how to write one, but not wanting to miss the chance, I cannonballed into the water. Jump now; learn to swim later.

This moment, I learned later, defined the difference between staying in a stuck life and living the one your soul wants. It’s the moment when we have a dream and despite the fears, self-doubt, and everything (or everyone) telling us why we can’t or shouldn’t, we jump after it.

Photo by Tobias Bjørkli

The Cliff vs. The Cannibals

Imagine being stranded on an island, and the only way to freedom is to jump off a cliff. Every day you walk to the edge and think, ‘This is the day I’ll leap.’ Then you start thinking about all the reasons not to. There could be rocks below, the swim could be challenging, the fish could judge you, you’d have to leave your cute hut behind, and the monkeys just redecorated it. So you tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow and shake coconuts loose instead.

Now imagine you’re standing at the cliff, and there’s a hoard of hungry cannibals chasing after you. At that moment, all you’re thinking is that a garnish is not your idea of accessorizing. You jump and worry about the outcome later.

Think of everything you’ve ever wanted to accomplish in your life, and are no closer to those goals than you were yesterday. You may list a thousand reasons why you haven’t achieved any of these things. I know I did. The truth is, you are the only thing keeping you on that cliff. You’re looking down at the water below and only thinking about how terrifying it is to jump. You’re talking yourself out of it because of the ‘what ifs.’ The only fear you feel is the outcomes that ‘could be.’

Photo by Portuguese Gravity

Now imagine if, for every one of those goals and dreams, you had a hoard of spear-wielding, salivating cannibals chasing you. It’s a 50ft drop to the water below, and you have 10-seconds before they catch you. The first option is terrifying, and yes, you could get hurt, you may not stick the landing, and the sharks could laugh at you for days, but it leads to freedom. The second is equally terrifying, and yes, you could fight off the cannibals for another day, but if you don’t end up flame-broiled, you’ll still be stuck on an island looking over your shoulder for them.

The key here is that the fear of jumping is based on possible outcomes, and the future is not written. The cannibals are a clear and present danger.

You’re talking yourself out of it because of the ‘what ifs.’ The only fear you feel is the outcomes that ‘could be.’

Chart Your Escape Plan

What is your Island?
Are you staying in an unfulfilling career or one you hate because it pays the bills and people look up to you?
Are you staying in a relationship that feels stifling and doesn’t align with you, but it’s comfortable if not happy. Or are you attached to a cannibal and too afraid to leave?
Perhaps you’ve never booked that once-in-a-lifetime cruise because you don’t want to rock the proverbial boat.

Write down everything you want for your life. What dreams, passions, and goals would get you out of bed every day. What does your soul need?

What is your cliff?

Now write down everything holding you back from jumping off the cliff into the waters where those things are waiting? What do you fear could happen? Get specific, get intentional, and dig deep.

Lastly, what are your cannibals?

List everything chasing you and what would result in the most significant loss, pain, and biggest regrets if they caught you. What are the actual or potential threats you face every day? Time is undoubtedly one of these. We only have so much allotted, and it’s cannibalizing our lives every second. But time is often treated as an exotic virus we contracted on the island. It’s eating us slowly, and we don’t think about it until it’s too late.

Brain Games, Forks, and Another Metaphor

Thinking about the days ‘when X happens’ doesn’t help. You won’t find a way off your island without getting it out of your head because your brain really likes those new palm frond curtains with seashell dangles.

When the opportunity to become a screenwriter presented itself, it was like being on that cliff, and when the producer asked me if I wanted the job, that was my cannibal moment. It was now or never, and I jumped without thinking about what could be in the waters below or if I could make the swim. I said yes! Absolutely!

Photo by Beth Macdonald

Like so many opportunities in my life, this was a fork in the road, and although trees and dense fog shrouded it, I stepped on it.

The secret is that you can’t give your brain time to think about all the what-ifs that could happen. The brain is hardwired with a negative bias leaning, so left unchallenged, the brain is only going to think about all the terrifying things that could happen. And yes, I know the movie ‘The Fog.’ If that’s the first thing you think of, you watch too many scary movies. I recommend Moana.

You can’t always wait for the fog to clear. You just have to do it.

The only reason we’re ever afraid of taking the risk is that the mind can measure what you will lose. It cannot see what you could gain.

Your mind defaults to the bad things that could happen if you leaped off the cliff or could be waiting in the fog. Pick the metaphor that works for you. To get the whole picture, you must be intentional about the positive outcomes and realistic about the current situation. You must force the brain to think of these things by writing them down.

Once you have your list of dreams, terrifying ‘what if’s, and cannibals, rewrite the list with all the fantastic ‘what-ifs that could happen. Then focus on this list. We have to force-feed this list to the brain like feeding broccoli to a toddler because the only reason we’re ever afraid of taking the risk is that the mind can measure what you will lose. It cannot see what you could gain.

Swim With Dogged Determination

Back to the screenplay story.

The producer sent me a copy of the books he wanted me to adapt. While I waited for them to arrive, I got to work. I went to Amazon, which was still just an online book store back then, and purchased three books. Two by screenwriters considered masters of the craft and one that  seemed appropriate, “Screenwriting For Dummies.”

Then I crammed, like a college student who had spent the semester sliding down beer-soaked waterslides, and it was the night before finals.

When the books from the producer arrived, I was reading all four books simultaneously, and I learned as I wrote. At the time, I didn’t know any writers in the business, so I was Tom Hanks on my lonely island. Survive or die. I read chapters and wrote pages as I went.

Here was another “cannibals in the fog” moment. I had six weeks to get him the first draft. It wasn’t until much later that I learned experienced screenwriters take three months to a year or more to write the first draft and never turn in the first draft. Had I known this at the time, I would have doubted myself and probably let the opportunity pass. But I didn’t.

The process was challenging, and I loved it. Six weeks later, I had the first draft in hand. To my surprise, it was well-received, but like 98% of all film scripts, nothing came of it.

This experience was a pivotal point for me. It allowed me to pursue a lifelong dream, and I met some incredible people along the way. I learned a new craft, and if I’m stuck writing a short story or a scene in my novel, I’ll pound out the script version. Because scripts only include a brief setting description, action, and dialogue, they allow me to get the framework of the story down from beginning to end. Then I use it as a guide to fleshing out the book version.

Photo by Максим Степаненко

Journeys Will Change

When leaping towards something you want, be willing to let that road end or to take another fork if it appears. Some things are destinations, while others are only waypoints along the way.
At one point, I realized screenwriting & the Hollywood lifestyle path didn’t align with what I wanted. Had I not jumped at the opportunity when it presented itself, I would probably still be dreaming of accepting my Academy Award and regretting the path not taken. I realized my fears were speedbumps I turned into mountains. Instead, I had fun. I learned a new skill, became a better writer, and ultimately, with grace and peace, I let go of something I had chased since I was young and learned a lesson in courage that started with a simple phone call.

You wouldn’t believe the signal coconut shells get on a lonely island when the Universe calls.

So now it’s your turn.

  • What is your Island? This is where you are now. You don’t want to be here but it’s comfortable, it’s easy, it’s familiar.
  • What is your cliff? This is where you consider jumping into the unknown waters and swimming towards what you do want. What are the possible fears, doubts, and scenarios you imagine could happen and are keeping you from jumping?
  • What are your cannibals? These are the potential threats and scenarios in your current circumstance that keep you on edge, miserable, and in fear every day.

Let’s look at an example.

Island: I’m in a job that makes me miserable, but it’s a steady income that pays the bills and provides free coconut water.

Cliff: I’d love to quit my job and become a travel writer, seeing the world, but so many other people are already doing it. It’ll cost too much money, and I don’t know how to build a canoe. Besides, the headhunter who makes my grass skirts may laugh and just tell me it’s a dumb idea.

Cannibals: They found me today and I got my pink slip. I’ve been laid off and I’m not even getting coconut water to go! Now I don’t have income and I could lose the hut!

The important thing about the cannibal in this example, the job is real and even if there is little chance of getting laid off, it is still a looming probability. At any time, anything unexpected could happen and the next you know you find yourself out of work. I’m looking at you COVID!

So go, write your list and share your island adventures below. I’d love to know!

Oh, and the last I heard, the monkeys sold the curtains on Amazon and turned the hut into a disco.

What do you think?

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  • Barb Miller
    June 17, 2022

    Wow! This is just what I needed to hear today! Thank you for a very thought-provoking post!!!

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The Secret To Achieving Goals: Survive the Cannibals