What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

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“Watery grave,” I muttered under my breath. Standing on a ladder leading into 25 feet of deep, dark water, I couldn’t help but shiver. It was a sweltering 32 degrees (90F) outside, but I my hands shook so hard I could barely hold on. The last time I was in deep water, I was a scrawny 14-year-old, pulled out of the school pool coughing and spluttering, my life flashing before my eyes. I’d decided then and there that I was giving up on swimming lessons and refused to go near water since.

“C’mon hon!” Wanderer yelled encouragingly from the platform above. “You got this!”

“Shut up!” I yelled encouragingly back. To say I was a little peeved was an understatement. A week before we left on this Caribbean cruise, Wanderer showed me a new excursion they offered called the “Sea Trek”. At first glance, it didn’t look like the sea at all, but rather a bunch of people wearing space helmets, walking on another planet. “It doesn’t matter if you can’t swim!” Wanderer was saying. “They pump air into the helmet from a raft up top, so all you need to do is breathe and walk! You can do that, right? Should I sign us up?”

“Hello?” I said. “Have we met?” I jabbed the text underneath the ad. “It says 25 feet under water. As much as I love drowning in a watery grave, I think I’ll pass.”

So of course Wanderer signed us up anyway, knowing that if I decided to chicken out, we’d have to forfeit the $60 deposit. He’s such a gem.

“You can still back out,” he said while I glared at him with the heat of a thousand suns.

“No. We’re going,” I said through gritted teeth. Sure I was deathly afraid of water, but you know what else I was deathly afraid of? Losing $60.

And that’s why I was still seething, a whole 2 hours later, as I felt the Sea Trek helmet lower onto my head. I had no choice but to closed my eyes and climb into the water, white knuckling the railing as I went.

It took several shaky breaths and a whole lot of nerve-settling for me to finally open my eyes.

That’s when I saw a massive school of angelfish swim by, followed by a gorgeous blue parrotfish. Beautiful azure water surrounded me on all sides, but instead of suffocating, it gave me a crystal clear view to a whole new world.

“So this is what I’ve been missing,” I thought to myself.

Celebrating not dying with some underwater booze

The Ripple Effect

What I didn’t know, at the time, was that that one small decision to climb down that ladder would have a ripple affect.

That single decision, to not be afraid, lead to a whole series of life-changing experiences .

From then on, I:

  • learned how to swim without crying
  • mastered how to use a snorkel without hyperventilating
  • dived to the bottom of the pool, with my eyes open
  • learned how to be become an Open Water Scuba diver
  • swam with sea Turtles in the ocean
  • discovered my new obsession: swimming in underground Cenotes

The ocean doesn’t terrify me anymore. In fact, every time we dive it blows my mind even more than the last.

Oh ocean, let me be inside you forever

So, after conquering my fear of water forever, you’d think I’d be completely fearless when it came to retiring.

But I wasn’t. All those fantasies of golf-carting around the office, screaming “I QUIT” at the top of my lungs, and playing my boss’s head like a bongo didn’t happen. In fact, when I handed my notice to my boss, my hands were shaking—just like they did on that ladder 9 years ago.

I was standing on the ledge, looking down at the water, shivering. Would I swim? Or would I sink like a rock?

A hundred “What ifs” filled my head:

“What if we run out of money?”
“What if retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?”
“What if I end up bored and depressed?”
“What if…what if…what if…”

But just like that fateful day, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, reminded myself that I was going to be okay (after all, I had a life vest)…and leapt.

As it turns out, I didn’t sink. I swam. Swimming came so naturally, it turns out I had been a mermaid all along. And I couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t gotten into the water earlier.

Because here are all the incredible things that happened after I overcame my fear and retired.

  • Portfolio actually went up since we left!
  • Discovered it was CHEAPER to travel the world than staying at home!
  • Realized that in places like Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America, healthcare is a fraction of what it costs back home! You can live a 5 star experience (pool, massages, eating out all the time) for just $20,000 – $40,000 CAD/couple/year (or 15, 000 – 30, 000 USD/year)!
  • Found out so-called dangerous places (like Mexico and Thailand) aren’t dangerous and so-called expensive places (like Japan) aren’t that expensive. You just have to be smart about it.
  • Met a lot of other early retirees, like JLCollins, RootOfGood, GoCurryCracker, whom we chat with on a regular basis.
  • Met a ton of people from many different walks of life, from entrepreneurs to the world-schoolers, who taught us the value of not following the herd.
  • Got my Open Water Scuba certification, thus conquering my fear of water forever.
  • Started learning Spanish so we could get to know Latin America.
  • Started this blog, which has reached 1.6 Million views in the first year.
  • Built an app for a non-profit, which will debut in Chicago at one of the biggest librarian conferences this June.
  • Got invited to speak at two Chautauquas, thus fulfilling my lifelong dream of public speaking and traumatizing an entire room full of FIRE people with my insanity.

What You SHOULD Be Afraid Of

So that’s why when readers tell me they’re biggest fear is running out of money in retirement, I tell them their fear shouldn’t be running out of money. It should be running of time. When you let fear rule your life, you fall into the “one more year” syndrome. This causes you to continuously push back your retirement date and, as a result, spend way more time working than hanging out with the people you love.

photo credit: methodshop.com @ Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.

By being afraid of everything that could go wrong, you forget to focus on what you’re giving up. Or, in other words, the opportunity cost of NOT being afraid. In our case, if we hadn’t retired, we would’ve never done any of the amazing things I mention above. And from experience, I’ve learned that these experiences and human connections lead to other opportunities, and over time, you get a snowball affect.

Just like what happened when I stopped being afraid of water. And just like what happened when I overcame my fear and retired.

Thinking back, what I should’ve been afraid of was missing out on those priceless experiences.

Nothing in life is guaranteed. But the trick is not to turtle and hide, but to take calculated risks with backup plans.

As J. K. Rowling once said

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

The next time you worry about a place being “too dangerous”, “being bored in retirement” or “running out of money”, remember all the opportunities you are giving up by being afraid. Every time I’ve done something that scared me, I’ve never regretted it.

So ask yourself, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”


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40 thoughts on “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”

  1. I like to think of it as stepping outside our comfort zones. For most people, they’re extremely comfortable with that giant income stream from a job. You’ll never want to leave.

    Stepping out into the “cold” of financial independence seems pretty scary. But, pushing yourself into discomfort is the only way to advance forward.

    1. Totally agree. That’s why one of my favourite quotes is: “When you’re green, your growing. When you’re ripe, you rot”.

      Complacency is comfy and easy, but you’re just slowly drowning and not knowing it.

  2. The coolest part of you guys taking the big, scary FIRE/blogging step is that I got to meet you and now get to hang out with you.

    In other words, you made MY life better. 🙂

  3. First of all congrats on the PADI cert. It’s an amazing thing and such a surreal experience.

    Second, this is awesome and something were wrestling with at the time being. We actually had a discussion about this this weekend. It sure takes a certain personality to just close your eyes and jump and trust everything will be OK. This is certainly reassuring.

    1. I think what I’ve learned from this whole experience is that fear usually just comes from inexperience. But once you’re actually retired, you become way more confident, and as time goes on, your confidence goes up. I think Financial Samurai said it best with “the longer you are retired, the more confident you become”. It’s so true.

      So I know where you’re coming from. We had endless discussions about early retirement before we quit too, but as it turns out, most of the things we were scared about never happened (mostly because we were ignorant at the time and had NO idea how many cheap places exist outside North America). Once you retire, you’ll learn SO many things you didn’t know about. So it’s kind of a catch 22. You have to retire to find those things out but the lack of knowledge and fear is what keeps people from jumping.

  4. I wish I had thought about that earlier in life….I’m 63 now and I want to stop working today and travel the world b4 is too late but…don’t have enough money…my current portfolio swr yields only $11,500 a year and I would need 30k. Any suggestions on how I could do it today?

    1. Since I don’t have enough information about your field of work, debts, 401K, pension, etc, it’s hard to assess your situation.

      I would say off the top of my head, ways to do it would be a) work for 2 more years and wait for CPP or social security (you should already have this at 62 if you’re American) to pad your portfolio income b) work on a side gig or part-time job in retirement that earns 18,500K/year c) move to a low cost area overseas.

      Or a combination of the above. Feel free to e-mail us for a reader case study: https://www.millennial-revolution.com/can-analyze-personal-situation/

    1. Are you serious? Does this mean you’re a librarian?! Wow. Small world.

      The app is called “OurStory” and we build it in partnership with the non-profit “We Need Diverse Books”! Will be awesome to see you there 😀

      1. That sounds so cool! Diversity in books is so important for everyone. I’m a librarian currently working in publishing, and if you guys will be there I would love to come say hello!

        1. Yes, please do! Just look for the “We Need Diverse Books” booth. I don’t have the number yet, but I’m sure they’ll have it listed in the floor map.

  5. What a wonderful story on conquering your fears. Similarly, in the past I’ve put myself in situations to be judged and ridiculed and it has made me better by forcing me back to the drawing board to improve. If I find I can do no better, at least I know my true limit.

    1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s better to fail and know you’ve tried your best than to go to your grave wondering “what if?”

  6. I had a little sticker with that phrase on it on our old refrigerator. Often the answer was “I would have another beer” but I think the placement on the fridge had something to do with that.

    To be honest, I have quite a lot of fears about pulling the trigger on early retirement. Some are founded, many are just the normal anxiety that comes with the unknown. I tend to think a certain amount fear is not so bad (hey, something has to incite us to double check the safety belts, harnesses, and scuba gear), so long as it does not actually keep you from doing the thing. When it paralyzes you from action, then it’s the worst type of emotion.

    1. Yup. Fear is useful but not if it becomes debilitating. What we found is that the more experience you have in something, the less fear you feel. So really, the longer you are retired, the less fear you have.

  7. My motorcycle riding mentor used to tell me that fear is what keeps you alive. When riding a motorbike, being comfortable/complacent/cocky will get you killed.

    There was a period in my life when I would suffer from anxiety attacks. Not in a form as debilitating as I’ve heard others describe, but not fun either. Then one day I decided to view them differently. I started thinking of them as ‘growing pains’, similar to the physical pain I remember feeling as a teenager when I was growing faster than a weed in spring time. Now when I experience an anxiety attack (very rare these days!) I think – hey, I’m growing outside my comfort zone. That comfort zone box keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.

    And one last thought: one of my favourite quotes is accredited to Thucydides:

    “For the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out and meet it.”

    I repeat it to myself when taking those ‘leaps off a cliff” to remind myself that it’s okay to feel fear while taking action.

    1. “Now when I experience an anxiety attack (very rare these days!) I think – hey, I’m growing outside my comfort zone.”

      That’s actually very unique way to look at it! Never thought of it like that.

      Sometimes all it takes is a change in mindset. Bravery isn’t not feeling the fear…it’s feeling the fear and doing it anyway…like you did. Thanks for sharing your story!

  8. This is nice. 🙂 I’ve been a big, fat chicken my entire life and it’s certainly sucked at times. I’m trying to be more adventurous now that I’m grown up and can fund my own adventures, though. It can be as simple as going for a walk despite being afraid or too lazy to leave the house. Challenging a set mindset is the best way to live life.

    1. I was a completely chicken too (still am in many ways)! It helps if your hubby signs you up for scary things behind your back 😛 I give him full credit for forcing me to learn how to swim. Turns out I was a mermaid all along!

  9. There’s being afraid and then there’s that sense of being overwhelmed by something. The thought of running a marathon falls into the latter category. I wasn’t afraid, but it seemed like such a HUGE task that I didn’t want to try. Who’s crazy enough to do such a thing? Well, I’m glad it did it – more than 20 times, I did it. No better feeling than knowing you can figuratively eat an elephant.

    1. 20 marathons?! WHOA! How do you get through the last couple of miles? I’ve heard from friends that they had to come up with all sorts of crazy things for motivation ( ie tricking yourself into thinking your gf was getting kidnapped, thinking your parents are dying and you need to save them, etc etc)

      1. I get through by not being able to quit. If quitting isn’t an option, you somehow find a way. Every. Damn. Time.

  10. Years ago I heard this quote “Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere” and for some reason it just stuck. We, as humans worry about everything little thing to the point that just the act of worrying stresses us out even more than the task is that we are scared to do. I love that you overcame your fear of the ocean (even if you were forced to) and the fear of retiring. It is amazing how just one little thing can snowball into so much more than that. Have you ever thought about what your life might have looked like if you hadn’t made that leap?

    1. It terrifies me to think about it. SO many opportunities missed. So many relationships gone. I probably won’t even know it because I wouldn’t know what I was missing. Definitely wouldn’t have grown as a person for sure. Thinking about it feels like I’m erasing myself…

      That’s why it’s good to have a hubby who signs up for stuff behind you back 😉 I probably would’ve been less comfortable with this whole FIRE thing if I hadn’t proven to myself that I could go from terrified of water to scuba diver.

  11. Getting excited about fire, husband is on board! Spending my life with MB even though I don’t know how it will be, how to ensure a good school, what about stimulating things for mom……. all very scary and exciting ?

    1. Scary + exciting is the best part. That’s how you know you’re growing 🙂 Also, how could there be anything better than spending your life with MB? 😀

  12. Great post! You guys are a total inspiration. In the last year I made the leap to living outside North America and everything you said was true of my experience as well. It was so much less scary than I thought once I just did it. And all the worrying about potential worst case scenarios was a waste of time. Oftentimes, the worst case isn’t even all that bad. 🙂

    1. Kudos for getting out of your comfort zone and living a kickass life! Sometimes we really need to just get out of our heads and actually do it to find out it’s not as scary as we think (provided we have enough backup plans for worse case scenarios)

  13. I’m still in the scary stage right now. Mostly because everything is new and there’s still a lot of work to do getting everything in place. I hope a year from now things won’t be scary.

    1. It’s always scary in the beginning (first year was a bit nerve-wracking for us too), but it gets easier over time. Confidence comes with experience.

  14. Are you planning to be in Chicago next month? There are many great roof top bars here and it would be great to meet up if you have any free time.

    A couple of NAFTA Canadians working towards FI American style.

    1. Yes, we’re going to be in Chicago near the end of June for a conference. I’m not sure how much free time we’ll have since we’ll need to be at standing at a booth for most of the days, but we’ll let you know if we have any free days! Meeting up would be awesome!

  15. My biggest concern, or fear I guess, is the unknown regarding health care needs. I mean, you can run the numbers and figure out where you need to be (4% role, etc.). But that works when everything is going well, not necessarily if you suddenly have large healthcare costs.

    Did you guys figure some sort of cushion for the unexpected into your numbers when you decided to make the leap?

    I mean, if I had bigger gonads, our net worth says we can do it now if I’m going strictly by the 4% rule, but we are more comfortable with a sizable cushion for the unexpected. Perhaps I’m missing something?

    1. Being Canadians, it’s not as much of an issue for us, but surprisingly most of the early retirees are Americans. What I’ve seen from them:

      1) use ACA
      2) if ACA gets replaced, budget $10,000/year for health insurance per family
      3) work part time after FI
      4) use global arbitrage (places like Mexico have high quality, low cost healthcare. for example: Wanderer went to see a cardiologist in Merida and we only paid $32 for the consultation and $32 for the ECG)

      One American couple (Mike and Lauren) have an interesting solution: they had a baby in Costa Rica! Healthcare ended up being WAY cheaper than the States and since the baby has costa rican citizenship, they can get dual citizenship and have access to the healthcare system.

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