On Art, Fear, the Sea of Cortez and A Day Well Lived
I have a friend who is involved in the independent art world. Over the years he has supported many self-described “starving artists” whose dedication to their dreams has inspired him to write checks, host fundraisers and promote their craft. When I told him that I was going to sponsor “some guy’s attempt to swim across the Sea of Cortez,” my friend responded somewhat incredulously, “Why?” I told him, “For exactly the same reasons you support your artists.”
When Paul Lundgren first explained his quest to me, it felt like art. We often think of art as coming from a brush stroke, a keystroke or the stroke of a hammer against the chisel, but it can also come from a swim stroke. Paul’s swim is a kind of performance art and his work is called “Swim Cortez.” The emotional, spiritual and strong visceral reactions that we have to art and artists are moving and inspiring. The feelings are often deeply personal. And instant. Provoking a kind of deeper thought or philosophical discussion both internally and with others. Imagining Swim Cortez did that for me.
I met Paul at a brunch hosted by a mutual friend. As I was talking to still another friend, I overheard, “I’m scheduled to do the swim at the end of the month.” She then asked him if the shadows in the water scared him and he replied, “I think the shadows represent whatever fears I have in my day-to-day life. So, if I can live free of fear and do things to remain free of fear, then I don’t have any reason to fear the shadows.” I hadn’t even yet introduced myself, but at that point I was all in.
I’m not so good at living free of fear. I try, and at times I’ve been more successful than not, but ultimately I’ll make whatever excuses have to be made in order to avoid dealing with the fear or the shadows. It’s the fundamental reason that I fall in and out of shape over and over. It’s the real reason why I haven’t written my next book. It’s the reason why I’ve consistently gotten to a certain point of success, but not beyond it. It’s strange to fear success more than failure, but I do. Why? Because success breeds expectations, and expectations breed judgment. And judgment is my greatest enemy. It’s my Kryptonite. It has a power over me that I fail to understand, but am determined to defeat.
Art requires benefactors. The day after I met Paul, I wrote a check and told him that I’d help him in any way possible, which early on meant trying to find a presenting sponsor for his effort. I called friends; I called colleagues; I Tweeted the obvious companies that would be involved in an effort like this. Unfortunately, the world of sports marketing, which has provided the foundation for my career, wasn’t as eager to sponsor Paul’s effort. They couldn’t see the art through the ROI. Yet, each time I told the story of the swim across the Sea, I started to realize that I wanted to be even more involved. My heart was telling me that I needed to do more.
At some point in those calls to the other potential sponsors, I realized that being involved with Paul and his attempt to swim across the Sea of Cortez had absolutely nothing to do with swimming. Frankly, it had nothing to do with Paul. Instead, I realized that it had everything to do with me, and my pressing need to overcome personal demons. I needed to conquer fear. I needed to slay judgment. I wondered if I could leave it deep in the Sea. I emailed Paul and told him that I had a sponsor for his effort. I told him that A Day Well Lived would take care of his financial needs.
A little less than two years ago, I started A Day Well Lived in response to a personally difficult time. As I pondered the opportunity to sponsor Paul’s effort combined with ADWL’s growth, I knew that it was time to take its meaning (for me) to the next level. I keep saying that the definition of A Day Well Lived is following your heart and spirit. It’s about being inspired by gratitude. It’s about reacting authentically to the good, the bad and yes, even the ugly. In the roots of my fear of judgment live the seeds of being inauthentic and disingenuous. Even if I’m not purposely doing it, what if it turns out that I’m nothing more than a big fraud? I felt like if I were being true to the very spirit of the A Day Well Lived philosophy, I had no choice but to sponsor the swim. Even if my friends couldn’t understand. Especially if they couldn’t. Judgment, be damned.
When Paul then asked me to be on the crew, it was another test. I told him that I needed to think about it. Why would I need to think about such a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? How could I even hesitate? Simply because I didn’t want to be the weak link on the boat. I didn’t want to be judged for not being a good enough kayaker or because I didn’t hold up my end of the deal. The swim across the Sea of Cortez is a team effort and I didn’t want to be the guy who dropped the ball with the game on the line. I didn’t want that … judgment.
It didn’t take long, however, for me to recognize that this opportunity is exactly what I needed. I needed to face the fears and overcome the judgment. If Paul succeeds (when), he’ll break records. If I watch him do that on the Internet instead of from the deck of the boat, I’d have a hard time justifying that. Judgment would mock me. And, how could I explain to my son that giving in to fears is okay? How could I authentically explain how to avoid judgment if I can’t really do it myself? My son, who doesn’t want me to go because he’s afraid of the sharks, squid and jellyfish, needs to see me stare down fear and grab life by the opportunity. He’s too young to understand it all now. But, someday, he won’t be.
One of the key themes found on A Day Well Lived is that of “letting go.” Let go of the past. Let go of the pain. Let go of your mistakes. Learn from them, but don’t hang on to them. The opposite is also true. We must recognize and hang on to the amazing experiences that present themselves. Letting go allows for that recognition, but what good is it if we don’t propel ourselves into these experiences?
I’m grateful to be part of this celebration of human achievement—an achievement that is comprised not only of Paul’s participation and abilities, but also those of the crew (both on the Sea and land) and all the people around the world who will be watching. We’re all part of it. We’re all part of this piece of art. I may suck in the kayak, or I may even get seasick, but I’m going to be there. Whether I’m making up Paul’s meals, preparing food for the crew, providing inspiration or detailing the progress of the adventure, I’m going to do my part and do what’s asked of me. And I’ll do it to the very best of my ability. I know I can do that.
Better than that? I’ll come back with a much lighter suitcase because the fears that I take with me to Mexico will be left in the Sea. Forever. That’s A Day Well Lived.