You’re on your own (and why that’s a good thing)

One question people ask a lot when trying to start or improve their fledgling businesses — or when they’re generally trying to do anything epic — is, “But… what should I DO?”

Loosely translated, this usually means that they’re more than capable of getting all pumped up and inspired, but then just sort of sit there with that energy, unsure what to do with it. Imagine pulling back one of those matchbox cars so that it’s wound up tight and ready to fire off the minute you put it down… if only you knew where the racetrack was.

The root of this problem is that you want someone to tell you what to do. And while you can get advice and guidance and tips when setting out to do something amazing, nobody can tell you what to do because what you’re setting out to do, if it’s to matter and be remarkable, is new. Nobody has been there before — at least not coming from your exact situation and in the exact same way, with the exact same ideas and ambitions.

And what’s more, if you read this blog, you’re probably setting out to do your amazing thing in part because you don’t like other people telling you what to do. So you’ve set out to do your own thing, all the while looking back over your shoulder and asking, “Psst! How should I do my own thing?”

Let me explain.

You are on your own

Got that? Good, because it’s important.

There are two components to forward motion in anything awesome or interesting or truly worthwhile that you do.

The first component is nuts and bolts and even strategy, or what we commonly think of as knowledge. Knowledge is what you look to mentors for, or what you look up in books or courses. If you want to know how to replace a muffler on a 2010 Ford Fusion, there’s no point in stumbling through trial and error when you can simply look it up, or ask someone how to do it. If you want to know how to create a marketing campaign, someone who’s been there before can tell you, more or less, how to structure it.

The other component is intuition, which is the big-picture stuff. This is the stuff of blue-sky creation, of stepping out in faith with only an inkling (but without any real knowledge) of what’s going to happen next.

The existence of this second element, of intuition, means that in any worthwhile venture, nobody can tell you what to do. Nobody should tell you what to do. If the thing is yours, you have to figure it out. If you don’t figure it out, the thing isn’t yours, and you don’t get to claim any of the awesomeness that goes with it. If you don’t solve the puzzle, you don’t get to do the victory dance.

For example.

If you want to be an amazing parent, you can read books and talk to friends and watch Supernanny and hire a child psychologist to get a bevy of tools with which to deal with individual circumstances (your kid won’t eat; you wonder if he should get an allowance), but it’s then up to you to do the rest — to fill the gap between “knowing a lot of stuff” and the nebulous goal of “being an amazing parent.”

If you want to build a great small business, you can hire coaches to help you figure out individual strategies for how to attract more clients or how to handle customer service. If that business is online, you can hire people to handle the technology or you can learn it yourself. But nobody can tell you how to be the most engaging you that you can be. Nobody can totally teach you the fine art of pleasing clients. Nobody can, with any real degree of specificity, show you how to find a boundary out there and push against it until people react, and react in the way you’d like.

It’s tempting to say that people don’t realize this and that that’s why so many people are paralyzed in their efforts to do some of that epic shit we talk about, but I think most people do know it… and THAT is why they’re paralyzed.

There is no map

Working without a map, or a blueprint or a guide or an instruction manual, can be terrifying.

If you’ve ever tried to go against the grain enough to do something truly awesome or revolutionary (both of which are relative terms; small things that affect only you can be awesome and revolutionary), you already know that nobody can tell you what to do. And that’s fucked up and scary.

Stepping out and doing just about anything worthwhile is kind of like being a kid heading off to summer camp with a bunch of people you don’t know yet. You stand there in front of the camp bus, all nervous, and you look back over your shoulder and your mom or dad or whoever is standing there, urging you to go on, and you realize that if you’re going to go on your awesome camp adventure (or what you hope will be awesome; right now it’s scary as hell), that only you can step up onto that bus. You look back and ask what to do, knowing that it’s up to you but somehow hoping for one last instruction, one last bit of hand-holding, one last chance for someone else to take that next step with you or for you — but that’s all just delay tactics and hand-wringing. You know nobody can take that step for you. Bringing mom along to camp is not the way to create an epic summer. You have to do it on your own.

So many people on the verge of starting a business, writing a book, starting a movement, asking someone on a date, launching a product, coming out of the closet, breaking out of a bad relationship, leaving a job, starting a job, making a stand, questioning norms, or being who they truly are stand on the edge of the known, looking back at their friends, their mentors, their teachers, their reference materials, and societal standards and ask what they should do next.

And their friends, their mentors, their teachers, and the rest, if they’re good and positive, kind of nudge them forward, saying “Take the step.” But nobody can do it for you.

If something is new and awesome and worth doing — whether it’s moving from being an adequate parent to an excellent parent or whether it’s writing a blog post that puts you out there, raw, in uncharted and unexplored emotional territory — then it will require that you step into uncertainty.

If it’s not uncertain, it’s not amazing

Things that are predictable and known and plotted and mapped are not amazing.

I can tell you how to write Shakespeare. It’s easy. Go pick up Romeo and Juliet and copy it word for word.

But the problem is, Romeo and Juliet has been done. Shakespeare beat you to it, only it was amazing when he did it because nobody showed him how.

Or maybe you’d like to invent the iPhone.

Sure thing. Somewhere online, I’m sure someone can show you exactly how to do that, to recreate the iPhone piece by piece, but it’ll be about as amazing as building a model airplane.

And if you’re thinking, “Well, that’s idiotic. Nobody would do that. What they’d want is to invent something like the iPhone, but better.”

But how do you do that? That version of the task, which might be amazing, isn’t certain. Nobody can show you how to do it, and you could fuck it up. Probably will, in fact, since Apple has a serious market lead on you at the moment.

People, books, the internet, and teachers of all kinds can give you the exact steps to make a cake, build a couch, give a technical report on a topic, set up a website, and wire your house for surround sound. But nobody can show you exactly how to improve on a cake, draft a new design for a new type of couch, analyze and deduce information about a topic, design a beautiful website, or create a truly theatrical experience in your home.

And I think this is what has always bugged me about the mentality that surrounds internet marketing. (It surrounds everything, but it’s really prominent here.) Potential customers and students want to believe that a guru can tell them exactly how to make money, and gurus and teachers of all kinds are really eager to agree that they can do exactly that.

“Turn this crank and the internet will shoot cash into your lap!”

“Here’s my surefire, no-brainer system to creating a business that will make you rich!”

Hell, just do a Google search for “make money online.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

This is what I’ve had to wrestle with every time I’ve created a course. How do you explain that a course is full of great techniques and strategies and things to learn but that the final, magic piece is always intuition — and that it’s that final step that you must, by definition, devise and take on your own that turns a great plan into something with a shot at revolutionary success?

Meaning: Nothing I ever create will ever, ever, ever guarantee success. BY DEFINITION.

Everything I’ve created in the past few years has been missing one thing. Every time I’ve begun something, I’ve asked myself, “But what does this need to have in order to assure that someone has success with it?”

And the answer is always, “Magic fucking pixies.”

No advice, no course, no instruction, no bullshit “blueprint for guaranteed success” will ever work for someone who is unwilling to take their knowledge and then make that brave step out into the unknown and unknowable that is required.

This is what I was trying to say with my post promoting Question the Rules, about building a barn. The idea was that we could never give you a blueprint for your dream house, so we were instead trying to arm you with hammers, saws, and the knowledge of how to draft a blueprint.

The knowledge of how to draft your own fucking blueprint.

It’s why, when I originally wrote the sales page for my no-longer-available course Zero to Business, I included in the FAQ at the bottom the question, “Will this course make me rich?” and the answer “Absolutely not.” In bold.

Having a body of knowledge, advice, and mentorship — no matter how good it is — makes you this robot that is excellently equipped to respond in defined ways to defined stimuli. Only guts, bravery, and a general willingness to step into the unknown and unknowable can provide the necessary soul… the ghost in the machine.

Robots never do epic shit. Remember that.

If you’re never afraid, you’re fucked

Tony Robbins has a quote I really like. He says, “The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably live with.”

What this means is, the more often you aren’t sure what might happen next, the more epic and awesome and amazing and just plain wonderful your life will ultimately be.

So the question arises: Does this mean that you should blindly and stupidly step into things that you know nothing about, simply because you know nothing about them?

No, don’t be an idiot.

Remember knowledge, research, and strategy? Those are part of the equation too. You need to ask for advice. You need to learn stuff. You need to have teachers and coaches and mentors and knowledgeable friends. You need to research, and experiment, and read.

But then the next step — the big, scary, next step out into what’s never been done before in your world — is up to you.

If you don’t take the step and don’t feel the uncertainty that comes with it, you’re doomed to a I-say-jump-and-you-say-how-high kind of a life. You’re doomed to forever fill in paint-by-numbers instead of painting masterpieces. You’re doomed forever to regurgitate what has been done before, to mindlessly repeat the past.

The world of the known, the step-by-step, is stale. It’s been done. If you forever want someone to give you the next step, you’re forever in need of someone to tell you what to do. And if someone is forever telling you exactly what to do, what you do will forever be unremarkable.

The world of the uncertain is the fog of all possibilities. Anything can happen when you are uncertain — yes, including total failure. But if you never step into the uncertainty, you never have the possibility of evolutionary, awesome change, either. So you do your research. You hone your techniques. You plot your strategy as much as you’re able. You assess your chances and your readiness and your risk as much as you can, but then you have to leap.

Don’t worry. It’s worth it.


  1. Hey JBT,
    Wow, I couldn’t have said it any better myself. The true leaders and pioneers are not the ones that tell others what to do, they are the ones that say, “I’ll go first.”

    I agree with the Tony Robbins quote, the more uncertainty that we are comfortable with, the greater our life can become. It’s the feelings that stop many from moving forward.

    I can honestly say that most of my adult life was filled with uncertainty.

  2. Chase says:

    Johnny, thank you for writing this. Your illustrations and examples really do paint a clear picture of conformity and how it manifests in people’s lives.

    While reading, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of SYNTHETIC IMAGINATION vs. CREATIVE IMAGINATION from the book, “Think And Grow Rich.” All of our experience, knowledge, and ongoing education plays a factor in our SYNTHETIC IMAGINATION. But, there’s also our CREATIVE IMAGINATION, which comes from a source we were never aware of to begin with. In other words, we could never reference our ideas to any past experience, learning, or thoughts that came to us. It was straight out of the ether.

    Over the past 3 years I’ve developed the habit of meditating for an hour every day. A big part of why I chose to do this was to strengthen my mental capacity to handle stress in the positive sense. I knew that if I could manage my emotions more effectively, I could set out to do things that were a) out of my comfort zone b) exciting and exhilarating c) possibly help me make quantum leaps in my life.

    I’ve also noticed through my meditation practice, that my intuitive muscle has become stronger. When I take action, it’s because I’ve made a clear decision in my mind (which generally comes from a deep sense of feeling, knowing, and believing it’s the right one).

    You are awesome.

    P.S. A friend of mine out of MIami started a nonprofit organization called… Talk about non-conformity and doing what inspires you, this guy’s been wearing paper signs around his neck for the past 3 years straight! All of his signs have something to do with inspiration, positivity, and intention. You should check it out, I think you’d enjoy it.

    P.P.S. He also has a Facebook group where he posts a new video EVERYDAY about the sign he’s wearing. He’s a very inspiring dude. Check it out:

  3. Johnny says:

    Thanks guys… I think this is an important message, and I also think it’s the sort of thing that a lot of people might not want to hear. I find it inspiring and interesting (there’s FREEDOM in uncertainty), but most, most, most people want a map to follow. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s the truth.

  4. Shawn says:

    Hey Johnny, this post really hit home for me. I figured this out on my own not too long ago. Before that it was a mess of how-to books and instructional manuals, when what I really needed to do was TAKE ACTION! Take the next step, explore the unknown, get off my fat ass. That being said, I’m still gonna buy your course because I need to know the nuts and bolts. But after that…who knows?

  5. Johnny, that ‘s a very cool description of the place beyond footsteps. Beyond the known world to the place where dwells Mark Z. Perhaps I’ll invent another way. I had a picture of a bridge with the last three feet missing. Millions will walk to the gap and take pictures of the abyss; few will leap it.

    Actually, it’s a good thing. I like being out in the scary place. Safe is … boring. Damn visionaries 🙂

    But still, I think you paint a picture that has a takeaway for most. We’ve all heard cries for ‘step by step, please’ multiplying all over the net as if there was some way to make the voices echo. Intuition. Yea.

  6. Brilliant as usual Johnny. Between this and your guest post about friends on CopyBlogger, I’ve really felt inspired by you lately man. Keep rockin!

    “What this means is, the more often you aren’t sure what might happen next, the more epic and awesome and amazing and just plain wonderful your life will ultimately be.”

    Fave part. Great summary 🙂

    • Johnny says:

      And it’s haaaaard to do, stepping out when you don’t know what’s going to happen! But the good news is that it means there’s all the more rewards for those who do.

      • Ain’t that the truth. We should remind ourselves of this each day. The rewards wouldn’t be so good if most didn’t ‘step out’, as you put it. But they don’t.

  7. Dries Cronje says:

    Hey Johnny

    Thanks! I think I should read a post like this every morning before I tackle the day. It keeps things firmly in perspective.

    A couple of days ago I thought to myself… trying to build an amazing business online seems really hard at times. Almost to the point that you wish you didn’t have to do it.

    Yet, you need to remember the alternatives.

    You could get a job and do what you’re told every day. Or you could just accept your status quo and not do something amazing. Both these would be more certain, and infinitely more painful!

    Here’s to uncertainty! And to actually stepping out, facing the fear, and being who you ARE!

    And here’s to “Magic fucking pixies!” Ha!



    • Johnny says:

      I think people sometimes forget that an internet BUSINESS is still a BUSINESS, not witchcraft. And business is hard and uncertain!

  8. Wendy says:

    Wow. I mean, wow. By the second paragraph of this post I had the most sheepish look on my face that only deepened as I continued reading. I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me what to do for ages.

    Somewhat recently I decided I was tired of waiting and that I’d just write through it. My blog doesn’t have a clear message yet and I haven’t fully developed my voice but that’s what the blog is for. Although I was already creeping forward I’m not sure if I realized the reason I had to do it this way. Thank you for the wake-up call!

    • Johnny says:

      You should definitely pick up “Linchpin” by Seth Godin. It’s all about this, about how looking for someone to tell you what to do is a bad idea today and what to do about it.

  9. Sylvia says:

    Thanks. I needed that!

  10. wm says:

    Hi Johnny,
    TQ for an epic article of the day.

    I think this answer my question, “If you were to survived as a fisherman, why does school spend too much time teaching you what is a fish but not how to fish?” the answer to that problem as stated by you are : intuition, acting on it.

    School could prepare/ teach you for any type of working conditions but it could not (never, ever guarantee) that you will end up with a job of your dreams.

    • Johnny says:

      Right. I think education can have its place, but we have to remember that it’s mostly facts and not really much implementation… and really no intuition and creative problem solving. We’re taught in school to sit still and do what we’re told, so no real mystery that that’s what most people are conditioned to look for.

  11. Great article, Johnny! This arrived in my inbox at the perfect time, offering the assurance that I just need to stay on my path and follow my intuition — my inner voice.

    Thanks for the inspiring words!


  12. Elizabeth says:

    Really needed to hear this one. Thanks for writing it.


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