Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

Fearing the unknown is normal; pushing past it is the real juice

MEDIUM, 04 / 22 / 2018

All those months of saving articles, transcribing research and refining my precious little book outline — yet I still hadn’t written the first word. Would I ever? Could I ever?

It was a summer day in 2013. I was standing on Michigan Avenue along Chicago’s Mag Mile, blathering into a cell phone to my author friend Bridget. Once again, I was all fired up about my latest idea on how to repair what I referred to as our “defective” U.S. Congress.

Bridget was the only one I’d told about my stealth project. A brilliant researcher and writer, she was always full of encouragement. But on this day, a curious silence followed my monologue.

“Bridget, can you still hear me?”

“Jesus, Michael. Have you written a single word of this thing?”

“You know I haven’t. But you’re the only one I can talk to about this. You’re on the East Coast and you don’t know any of my Chicago friends, so it’s safe. I can tell you about it and there’s no pressure on me to start. I’m not ready yet.”

“Well, I don’t want to hear it anymore. Quit being such a damn wuss and start writing. Every day. At least three hours a day. It doesn’t matter if what you write sucks or even ends up in the book. But you’ve got to start.”

I love this woman. And I knew she was right. Over the next two days I shared the book idea over lunches with two more friends. Their responses were nearly identical: What are you waiting for? You’ve got the whole thing in your head — get it out!

This trio of trusted voices made me ask myself the obvious question that I’d long been avoiding: Just why is it that you haven’t started?


The answer to that question turned out to be more questions. And they weren’t shockers:

  1. I’ve never written a book before — how the hell do I do this?
  2. What if it’s horrible? Will it be worth all that time and effort if it ends up sucking?
  3. Who am I to write a book criticizing the U.S. Congress and our Constitution? After all, I lost more races as a campaign manager than I won. Where do I get off ripping the American system of government? The nerve!

I didn’t like any of these questions. But asking them did help me to home in on my fears.

Once I really started thinking about it, I realized that my doubts were both normal, and fairly irrational. Experience teaches us this — if we choose to pay attention.

I still remember the first time I did a live shot on local TV news. I was 25 years old and it was terrifying. It soon became as routine as driving my car. Only more fun.

That same kind of nervous energy washed over me during each of the career turns that would follow. All scary. All challenging. All unpredictable. And ultimately, all fun.

So when I finally confronted these fears about writing the book — and acknowledged that they were merely excuses to delay the risk and hard work that the process would entail — I was ready.

Don’t get me wrong — clearing that first hurdle didn’t make the writing of Unlock Congress any bed of roses. The day that I did start, the blank page on my laptop stared back at me for at least an hour — whiter than a wedding dress. But eventually the words began to fall off my fingers.

And Bridget was right again: the three pages I filled up that first afternoon never did make it into the final draft. Still, I was off and running. Or at least walking. And it felt totally energizing.

I texted Bridget: “I don’t know if what I’ve scribbled over the last three hours is good, awful, or somewhere in between. But I don’t care. It’s the most fun I’ve had doing work in I can’t remember how long. So THANK YOU!”

Eight months later, WhyNotBooks reviewed my first four chapters and decided they would publish. Eight months after that, friends and colleagues were on hand at a book release party in Chicago’s West Loop. It was a blast.

I certainly don’t intend to portray any delusions of grandeur here; Unlock Congress was no best-seller. Not even close. But what the book did do was lead to some truly gratifying things.

I’d taken great pains to try to prosecute a non-partisan argument. So when the book received public endorsements from across the ideological spectrum, it felt terrific.

Unlock Congress became a platform from which I was able to publish more opinion columns. Journalists from The Wall Street Journal to USA Today began calling to seek comment on congressional issues. I had hoped to join the national conversation and help shape it. Now I was a part of it.

What I hadn’t envisioned was that the book would lead to two senior fellowships, an adjunct teaching position at Arizona State University and speaking engagements at colleges and corporations around the country.

All of these were wonderful gifts. And none of them would have materialized if I had given in to my fears.


Of course, it was also possible that the book could have been a straight-up failure. Heaven knows I’ve had my share. But I’d say that this is actually the deeper moral of this story. Because even if that had happened, I wouldn’t have regretted a single minute of work over those 18 months. It was the doing of it — the struggle to complete it — that mattered. I will never forget putting the final edit on the final draft. It felt awesome.

This principle applies to any new challenge. Any effort toward reinvention, whether personal or professional. The vocation or activity isn’t what’s relevant. nor are the externals of “success” or “failure.” It’s the undertaking of the endeavor that counts. The trying.

Sometimes it can be easy to forget that having doubts is a quite natural feeling. We all have insecurities that can give us pause before leaping into what can seem like a daunting abyss of newness. It would almost be odd if we didn’t. We are human beings. We are subject to the human condition. One plus one.

But rolling the dice and facing the unknowns are what lead to the real juice in life. Right there, in that unpredictable moment. The leap can be frightening, threatening and exasperating. It can also be exhilarating.

Each of us operates at our own pace. So it’s no crime to need a little time in order to launch yourself off the starting line. But once you do, you’re no longer just along for the ride. That’s the beauty. Now you’ve got your hands on the wheel. You’re the one paving the path. No one can stop you but you.