Fear, the maze, and freedom

The other day, I was at Bob Evans with my wife and kids when my son unexpectedly taught me a really awesome life lesson.

You never really know how kids will be at a restaurant, but fortunately Bob Evans had finally exchanged their old winter kids’ menus for the spring edition, so Austin was engrossed in doctoring the pictures inside: drawing giant robot legs and clamp arms on the sun so that it could menace the kid playing on the swingset below, drawing horns on other children, and attempting to turn the dog into a Yoshi from the Mario Bros. video games.

When he got bored with artistry, he moved on to the puzzles: A matching game that was too easy. A word scramble he wasn’t interested in. And a maze with a rabbit in the center, where the objective was to take the rabbit through the maze and to its carrot.

“What do you have to do here?” he asked.

“Take the rabbit to the carrot,” I told him.

So he drew a line directly from the rabbit to the carrot, neglecting the walls of the maze entirely.

I looked at him.

“He’s a rabbit,” he said. “He can jump.”

You are in a maze

Seems like a lot of people don’t like their jobs nowadays. So you ask the question: “Why not quit?”

And the answer is always some form of, “I can’t. I have [X obligation].”

I’m not saying that anyone should ignore their obligations and quit their jobs without thinking, but it’s always interesting how nobody even considers the outside-the-box alternatives.

You could get another job. Most people think the job market is so terrible that they could never get another job, but usually it’s more accurate to say that they couldn’t get the exact same job that has the same salary and the same benefits (financial and otherwise), but that has flexibility and none of the negatives of your current job.

So, really, you could probably get a different job and adjust to differences in pay, or whatever other differences — savory and unsavory alike.

Or you could try the whole self-employed thing, and just accept that you may have a lot less money for a while.

(As I mentioned in another post recently, Pace and Kyeli trimmed their expenses by half when they decided to start their own business. That’s not easy to do, but it can be done.)

If you have a house, you could quit your job, lose half of your family income for a while, sell or forfeit the house, and move into a cheap apartment. I know you’re already shouting reasons why this is a bad idea, but the truth is you could do it if you wanted to.

Hell, you could move back in with your parents.

So it’s not true that there’s no way to do it, just like it wouldn’t be true to say that the rabbit can’t get out of the maze if the only path through it is blocked. You’re just not considering all of the options open to you — the jumping straight up out of the maze options.

And if you know those options but don’t like them, then that thing you claim to want so much isn’t something you want all that badly.

The Badass strikes again

I was thinking about this recently when Jon Morrow, who I think of as “Chief Badass,” wrote another epic post — this time for Problogger. Jon tells the story about living with a chronic disease that ate up all but $700 of the money he ever made in any given month.

And so Jon found himself in a trap… or a maze.

As long as he allotted only $700 to personal expenses — rent, food, personal items, and anything at all that wasn’t medical — Medicaid would give him what he needed to stay alive. If he dropped Medicaid, he couldn’t pay the bills. If he kept it, he’d never have more than $700 to spend.

No matter how he massaged the numbers, it could never work. Living in America, under the American system, had him caught in the corner of a maze.

So he asked, “What if I didn’t live in America?”

And with that thought, he dropped Medicaid and moved to Mexico, where he could earn American dollars and spend pesos, and where medical care was a tiny fraction of what he used to pay. Now he hires full-time help, does his work in a posh resort from a balcony overlooking the ocean, and keeps the money he earns.

Was (and is) Jon’s plan risky? Sure. Anything could happen. The border crossing alone, for a guy in a wheelchair and his grandmother, was dangerous. Outside of Jon’s beautiful-but-self-contained resort area is a bit sketchy. There are some supplies that are hard to find, and the Mexican version of “wheelchair accessible” usually means having someone lift your chair up the steps. But what’s the alternative? The no-way-out, $700-for-everything life?

In Jon’s situation, do you take on a possible risk… or do you choose a life of definite shittiness?

I know what I’d do.

Fear

We live in fear, most of us. Our society is safe from crime as long as we’re terrified — as long as we lock our doors, carry our guns, and suspect everyone. We’re safe from terrorism as long as we fear and oppose suspicious cultures. We’re safe from financial ruin as long as we have a deadly aversion to losing our credit ratings, to defaulting on a loan, or to losing a house.

Jon was safe in having the medical care he needed as long as he was afraid enough of losing it. He was safe as long as that fear was intense enough to accept a raw deal like: “Keep $700 every month, and give us the rest.”

Jon told me once that things changed when he decided that if he died, that would be okay. He’d rather take that risk than have total certainty that he’d never have a future or that he’d end up in a state-supported nursing home, watching daytime TV and waiting for his turn to die.

Do you want to waste away and languish? Or do you want to take a chance at life… even if it entails the risk of death?

My Jon moment

I recently dropped my health insurance. It took me a year after I first asked if I should to take the leap, but I did it.

I’m diabetic, so every year for the past few years, my insurance has gone up by 30 to 50%. The final straw came in February and March of this year, when my monthly premium went up by over $200… two months in a row. The first time, it went up because my policy was up for annual renewal. The second time, it went up because I had just turned 35, and was therefore considered a higher risk.

And, for the record, my policy was already the highest-deductible policy offered. I didn’t see a penny’s worth of benefit from my insurance until I spent $5000 per year, which has only happened once — the year I broke my arm.

I thought to myself, “Even if I feel like paying $1200 per month for just me... what happens when I turn 40? 50? 60?”

I didn’t like that the insurance company was so sure that I was a bad case that they were betting so heavily against me. And what’s more, it made me MAD. I’m a type-1 diabetic. I can’t change that, and I didn’t ask for it. Everyone knows it’s wrong to discriminate against a person if he’s black (and, therefore medically more likely to have sickle cell anemia, just to put it in actuarial terms), but it’s okay to discriminate against diabetics who are, on average, more likely to incur higher medical bills.

Never mind that I’ve been diabetic for 22 years and don’t have even the smallest hint of any kind of complications. Never mind that I eat well, exercise often, and would confidently put my health up against that of most nondiabetics.

It made me furious. I was trapped. No matter what I did, the company would never listen. The wouldn’t consider me — only my “condition” and what the actuarial statistics said about it. No matter how well I played by the rules, they’d never back off, never treat me as an individual, never charge me less.

So I decided to charge myself less.

I quit their bullshit system, with a tip of my hat to Jon.

I said, “Fuck this. I’m jumping over the walls to get that carrot.”

There was no way to win if I didn’t change the rules. The rules said that as long as I was insured, premiums would continue to go up. Even if premiums eventually froze, I’d still be paying way more than anyone else.

So instead of paying for insurance, I’m putting the amount of my old premium into a savings account. I’m paying for supplies and doctor visits directly. If I have an accident, there’ll be more than enough in my account to cover it, cash, within a few months — and until and unless that happens, I’m saving around $800 each and every month.

For a long time, I thought, “What if I get cancer? What if I get hit by a bus?” And those thoughts stopped me, because they came from fear.

But then I decided I’d rather not mortgage my life every day due to fear of something that may happen someday… or may not. I decided I’d make what I knew was a good choice today, and deal with the unlikely worst-case scenario if it ever happened.

If I suffered a debilitating illness that totally bankrupted me, I’d apply for financial aid. Make payments.

Or move to Mexico.

But I wasn’t going to deal with a sure raw deal just because of a boogeyman that probably wasn’t even there.

You’re a rabbit. And rabbits can jump.

Right now, in some area of your life, you may feel like a rabbit in a maze. Someone or some thing is controlling you, telling you where to go, making you exhaust yourself for no logical reason. And maybe you’re okay with that maze, when you think about it. But don’t get fooled into thinking there’s no other way.

Jon was trapped by his medical expenses in America. So… what if he didn’t live in America?

I was being crippled by my insurance payments. So… what if I didn’t have insurance?

And you? If you’re a rabbit in a maze, at least ask the question: What if I wasn’t in the maze?

We’re trained to stay within the nine dots, to color inside the lines, to think inside the box. Usually what keeps us there is fear — fear imposed by others, and fear imposed by ourselves. And so ultimately, you need to ask yourself some questions: Is my fear legitimate? What would happen if I did the thing I fear? What would really happen if the object of my fear actually came to be? And honestly, how likely IS it that the thing I fear will actually happen?

And most importantly: Am I willing to live every day under oppression because of fear? Or am I willing to risk the thing I fear if it means the surety of leaving my oppression?

It’s like Robert Stack said in the movie Airplane!: “You take a risk every time you leave your house, cross the street, or stick your face in a fan.”

Life is full of risks. And the real question is: Which risks are you willing to accept, and which risks are the true demons worth enduring some degree of oppression to keep at bay?

For me, I’m going to keep locking my doors at night and plan to stay out of bad areas after dark if I can avoid them. But I’m willing to bet on my ability to take care of my own health using my own money, and to deal with problems in due time… if they ever occur at all.

Fear can be useful. But don’t let it rule you.


Now that you've read this post, go here:
WHAT DEFINES YOU?

Comments

  1. The supposed “worst” time in my life happened when I lost everything. I should have been really bummed and depressed being reduced to nothing, right? (Some people wanted me to feel that because some people get off on other’s miseries.) But ironically, I felt LIBERATED. And I quickly found out how resourceful I am. That experience taught me that no matter what happens, I will always be okay. I will always find a way to make it. And it has made me utterly fearless. I have found my way through the maze.

    Thanks for such a great post! :)

  2. With all that, the part that’s going to stick with me most is still – he’s a rabbit, he can jump. Loved how you built your experience on top of Jon’s and made some great points. Makes me want to look harder for ways to be a rabbit.

    • Johnny says:

      My favorite example of this is the story Tim Ferriss tells about becoming the Chinese Kickboxing Champion. He bent the rules and won easily… unfair? Maybe. Not in the spirit of the game? Probably. But did he get where he wanted by thinking outside the box? Definitely.

  3. Yep, I just blogged something similar about the day my dad gave up on life because he refused to question the preconceived notions of his existence. We’re all rabbits, and we can definitely JUMP!

  4. Jon Morrow says:

    Right on.

    One thing you touched on that I’d like to highlight is failure is almost never as bad as people think it will be. You think the world will come to an end if you lose your job or your house, but in reality, nothing really changes. The sun comes up, the birds are tweeting, and maybe you get a few calls from creditors, but otherwise, nobody really seems to care.

    Surprisingly, it’s even true for losing your health. After the initial period of shock and depression, people with fatal or debilitating diseases have exactly the same level of happiness as everyone else. It’s weird, but you just accept it and go on.

    Also, I think people also underestimate the compassion of others. If you got hit by a bus or something, not only could you qualify for grants and financial aid, but your friends will go to bat for you. In your case Johnny, I’m 100% certain we would hold a Copyblogger fundraiser or something for you if anything ever happened, and it would be taken care of.

    The point is, yes, abandoning support systems and taking control of your life is a risk, but it’s usually a smaller one than you think it is. Worst-case, you’re broke for a little while, and you have to rebuild. If you’re emotionally stable, it’s really not that big of a deal.

    • Johnny says:

      Exactly. In the depths of my financial bullshit, I realized that the absolute worst-case scenario I could imagine was having to move in with my in-laws. And while that’s hardly desirable, it’s hardly dying in a ditch, either… which is what failure typically feels like in advance.

      And totally agreed on the compassion. We feel like we have to be an island all the time, but that’s not how intimate societies and families work.

  5. Brad says:

    Kick as post Johhny B Cool – You should be very proud your son is a critical thinker. I plan to teach my kids the same thing.

    Question, did you only drop your insurance, or your whole family’s?

    Lastly, you hit the rabbit dead center with the fear talk, I wrote about it myself…. (shameless plug – Sorry… http://www.hollandz.com/the-suicide-of-fear/ )

    Keep in killin’ it.

    • Johnny says:

      No, just MY insurance. Theirs is reasonable. If mine had stayed reasonable, I’d have kept it… that’s the thing. The fuckers just got greedy, and pushed it, and pushed it. I felt like I was being played for a fool, so I basically said “fuck off” and went on my own way.

  6. If ten years ago someone had told me that I would turn 40 living in my parent-in-law’s house (in West Africa), that I wouldn’t own a car, let alone a house, I’m sure I would have absolutely flipped out.

    But I hope that if they’d then added that my husband and I would have been able to launch two amazing new careers as a result of having minimal overheads, and also be able to home school our daughter, I would have been impressed and inspired and excited at the prospect.

    Love your son’s logic. May he hold onto that wisdom with both hands.

  7. Elle B says:

    I read Jon’s post the other day and was blown away. This makes twice in one week.

    This is so empowering not just because it’s feel-good inspiring, but because you both looked that big monster fear — death — in the face (in the guise of its proctor, our health/insurance system) and gave it the finger.

    Once you’ve vanquished that fear, there’s nothing you can’t do! I’m not quite there yet, but I’m starting to realize what it will take.

    • Johnny says:

      It’s not terribly easy. I wrote a post about this last year (linked to it in the post above) and a lot of people told me to bail. But I couldn’t do it. I kept paying.

      But this year, it was too much. No more.

  8. Archan Mehta says:

    Johnny,

    Bless your heart for writing this post: it brought tears to my eyes.

    That is the power of your writing–you make it real for your readers. You wear your heart on your sleeve. You are not afraid to tell the truth. There is great beauty in a human being who is prepared to let it all hang out. Such vulnerability takes courage.

    Your life circumstances are unique, agreed. What you have had to put up with is rather unfortunate. People like you deserve understanding and compassion.

    Even in the worst-case scenario, there are people who care about you. This includes your readers and fans. We would all try to pitch in to help and support you. You are such a talented human being: what a great writer.

    Any society which claims to be civilized ought to extend help toward those who are less fortunate. People like you should feel empowered in such a society. There should be “charity for all, malice towards none.” You are in good company, though, there are many suffering from diabetes, but we always try to pray for you and wish you all the best. We want you to live a long and fruitful life.

    Personally, I am fond of the minimalist approach toward life. If you reduce your wants and needs, who needs a million bucks or more? Throughout the ages, there have been millions of individuals who have decided to embrace voluntary poverty with a smile on their faces. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “renounce and enjoy.”

    Our financial situation gets out of hand when we spend more than we earn. There are a lot of people who dream about the opulent lifestyle without having the means to support it. Such people can get into a financial mess. It is better to save and invest what little you have. Over time, that money can multiply and yield great ROI. Cheers.

    • Johnny says:

      Thanks man, I really appreciate it. This was sort of about saying, “No more” than anything else. I mean, I could have afforded it… but it’s just ridiculous. So I refuse.

  9. Hey Johnny
    Magic…

    I remember a comment I made a few months back on another post about recognising when to quit. I had a worryingly large and consuming fear of failure. Had I taken on too much? What if it didn’t and I am left broke and looking silly.

    Here I am 5 months down the road and I have left my job (still at Uni :p) and have close to my first £1000 coming in next month.

    It wasn’t all roses but I am glad I did it, especially the bits where I had to recognise what was wrong and change game plan.

    Its not enough to just have confidence and a great idea, sometimes you need fearlessness and wall jumping rabbits.

    RABBITS UNITE!
    Larax

  10. I’ve been here.

    http://escaping-mediocrity.com/shitless

    and you can die by inches or you can pack up and roll the dice and win.

    Funny – I’d bet on your health over mine. And I pay $600 for awesome insurance…for my whole family.

    • Johnny says:

      That’s a great post, and just epitomizes all of the stuff we’ve talked about re: The Spider.

      It’s so fucked up. That $1200 insurance is just for me. One person, $1200. At 40, I’ll bet it’d be over $2k.

  11. Kevin says:

    This post is very powerful to me. I just left a large public accounting firm and started my own. As much as I miss those semi-monthly checks hitting my checking account, so far I am still glad I took the leap. I just turned 35. What’s the worst that can happen? I end up having to go back to work for someone else. That’s not such a bad tradeoff.

  12. Holli B says:

    This was such an incredible article and I know exactly how it feels to be that rabbit. I used to always see the walls, measure their height and lament over if I was ever going to make it through the maze. And all the while, I completely forgot that I have strong, powerful legs that allow me to make tall leaps.

    But I am jumping. I have been jumping for the past couple of years, and each year I’m taking more risks and much higher leaps. I want to work abroad, so I’m putting together my plan to be able to do that. I don’t have time to think about all the ways that it could possibly not work. I can only focus on making it work. And it will.

    Thank you so much for this!
    Holli B. ~ Anglo Noir

  13. MikeTek says:

    It occurs to me The Secret is not to focus intently on what you want but to visualize what it is you’re afraid of and count on your resilience (because you can).

    People are similar in most ways – and that’s one of them. We are all damn good at getting over it.

    There’s a badass in each of us.

  14. Annie Andre says:

    This post made me laugh. It could have been written about me and my family. I suspect so many people are in the same situation. BUT WON’T ADMIT IT MAYBE?

    We made the jump from unemployment to quasi self employed. It was really really really scary to leave our nice suburban life and silicon valley home and live semi nomadically with 3 kids in tow. But, it’s been so liberating and we feel so much more alive.

    The whole medical cost is KILLING us though. It’s crazy how expense it is..It’s nauseating and makes me want to puke. We are in Canada staying with my family in Montreal to cut costs while we get our biz(s) off the ground and everyone has insurance no matter what.
    I’m just ranting now and not really adding any value am i? LOL.
    thanks for the great post. i like your style and i’ll be back.

    • Johnny says:

      Hmm, can’t you partake of that nice, cheap, socialized healthcare in Canada? I’m beginning to think they’re on to something.

      • Annie Andre says:

        Canadian healthcare. Yes, it’s an afterthought for my aunt and cousins. They complain about high taxes. around 40% to 50% income taxes. It costs my cousins a few hundred a month in subsidized child care where i was paying 1 grand a month per child in California. In Quebec, the government pays you another couple of hundred a month per child just because they want you to have kids. they keep paying until the kids are 18. Uhhhhh that’s it. I’m reclaiming my Canadian Citizenship that my father gave away….Or move to France

  15. Heather says:

    I love, love it when this happens!

    Not 30 minutes before reading this post, I put on my list of things to do today — go by the insurance office and cancel health insurance! I went for many years happily with NO coverage, but bought into the fear thing four years ago and paid out the bucks! No more!

  16. Josephine says:

    I love this post. It’s extremely inspiring. Let me pose this question, however. How would your advice change if you were 55 instead of 35, and didn’t have the safety net of living with parents or in-laws? And let’s say you were unexpectedly hospitalized in the past three years–absolutely out-of-the-blue–for acute pancreatitis and your gall bladder had to be removed, STAT. This when, overall, your health was very good, your weight ideal? I’m just curious. I’ve always been a risk taker in life–compared to my peers. (Last year I quit my job and moved across the country for love.) But I pay a crushing $600+ a month for COBRA and worry about the future because present and future risks just seems a bit more daunting at this age. (The hospital/doctor bills for my acute pancreatitis/gallbladder episode ran over $45K.) In short, I don’t know what my next move is, I’m not sure what I want to do, and being 55 just seems to make it more scary.

    • Johnny says:

      Boy, really hard to say. I’m good at advising myself in these “risky” situations because I know all of the details of them, but I’m reluctant to advise others on them. I’ll just say that at $600/mo, I’d still be paying for insurance in all likelihood. I was even willing to grudgingly pay almost $800. But at $1200 it just was way too much, and I got pissed… especially since there was no end in sight. It was a matter of facing greed, you know?

      I think everyone has to decide for themselves, and I know that doesn’t help much!

      • Josephine says:

        Thanks for the reply, Johnny. I’m paying. And, yes, clearly everyone has to decide for themselves.
        The heart of my question was: How would your assessment of risk change if you were 20 years older than you are now? Or wouldn’t it? I’m just curious.
        Thanks again!

        • Johnny says:

          I don’t think my feeling of risk would change, but I’d still be weighing cost vs. benefit. Ultimately, would I think it’s reasonable to take the risk given my situation, or would I be basing my decision on fear?

  17. Mari says:

    Wow, I felt the same way about health insurance at my previous job. I am pretty healthy and never get sick or take any medicine, and yet it really annoyed me how much was being deducted from every paycheck, and for what? I never benefited from it because if and when I went for a yearly checkup I still had to pay a deductible. I would then add up all that I had paid from my paychecks and that amount alone would have more than covered the doctor’s visit. But you always have the “what if something else happens like an accident or something’ and you play it safe. Anyway, I’m with you on this whole insurance thing. Its better to use self control and set up your own health savings fund and screw the premiums, deductibles, etc.

  18. Trish Smith says:

    Sorry for chiming in late on this – I came here by way of your “trials wrap-up” post, and I have to say my husband and I absolutely agree with this post. In the past 13 years that we’ve been married, we’ve come to the conclusion that the *only* things that matter are our family and friends. Our current lifestyle is a reflection of that: We live in what could only be called a “bunker” made of concrete (it’s the walkout basement for what will eventually be a geodesic dome); it’s nothing fancy (we have cement floors and bare drywall walls), but it allows us to live mortgage free. We don’t have cable, garbage service (we bring garbage and recyclables to the dump ourselves twice a month) or memberships to anything.

    A couple of years ago we did what you did and got rid of health insurance for ourselves (we keep it for our son) – and we now pay LESS for doctor’s visits than we did WITH insurance (it’s a dirty little secret that many health providers will charge LESS than a co-pay if you pay cash, because you’re saving them the cost and hassle of insurance paperwork). More important than the money we save is the mental stress of dealing with all those costs, figuring out how to afford/budget for them every month, and worrying if we can’t pay that bill this month.

    Do we miss any of that? Sure, once in a blue moon I wish I could watch TLC for the home improvement shows, and yeh, I’d like to have a nice fancy house to entertain guests in. But is it worth the stress and financial drain of actually maintaining that lifestyle? No. Not for a second. Would this work for everyone? Of course not. But I believe FAR more people could do this, and they’d discover what you did – that it’s not only do-able, but that it would be a blazing success. Thanks for writing this, Johnny.

    • Johnny says:

      Yep yep. It’s amazing what we THINK we need vs. what we actually do need. Ultimately, we could all live (and probably be fairly happy) in a community of caves. Everything else is icing on the cake, and most of what says different is typically-baseless fear.

  19. Marissa says:

    Interesting – I was praying today that God would show me whether I really needed to get insurance or not – and I stumble across this post (I wasn’t even searching the internet today for anything health or insurance related). I’m healthy, and all the years I had insurance, I still ended up with surprise bills after my co-pays and the insurance payments. Most doctor visits resulted in diagnoses of conditions that time would’ve taken care of on its own (or WebMD self-diagnosis and following recommendations).

    I’ve now been off on my most recent policy for almost a month, and using the month prior to research another option – I can tell you I’m certainly one who was fearful of being without insurance in case of a major ‘what if’ health issue. This gives me something to think about, however.

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] 30-day no-carb diet trial).  Healthy lifestyle or not, his insurance premium keeps skyrocketing.  Well, that changed – Johnny quit his health insurance! Johnny said, and I quote, “Fuck this. I’m jumping over the walls to get that carrot.” [...]

  2. [...] Fear, the Maze, and Freedom: If you think you’re trapped, you’re not. There’s always a way out of any situation (in business or life) if you’re willing to be unafraid and think outside the box. [...]

  3. [...] we can choose to jump. We do not need to be confined by our limiting expectations. Remember our perceptions determine the [...]

  4. [...] The thing is, our preconceptions, our assumptions, and our culture are probably keeping us running through the maze when we could have jumped the wall. [...]

  5. [...] A job search can be downright scary. Thinking about the broader direction and momentum of your career can be frightening too. These facts of professional life are why you must read Johnny B. Truant’s recent blog post – Fear, the maze and freedom. [...]

  6. [...] This article by Johnny B. Truant was bounced around Twitter like a ping pong ball when it came out.  That’s because it’s a doozy.  Give it a read if you haven’t already: Fear, the Maze, and Freedom. [...]

  7. [...] loved this post About Fear, The Maze, and Freedom on [...]

  8. [...] Of course, we’d all love a shortcut, and easier path, right? For most of us, we can’t just jump out of the maze. [...]

  9. […] A job search can be downright scary. Thinking about the broader direction and momentum of your career can be frightening too. These facts of professional life are why you must read Johnny B. Truant’s recent blog post – Fear, the maze and freedom. […]

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