What’s Keeping You From Your Great Work?

What’s Keeping You From Your Great Work?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Cara Stein of 17,000 Days

What’s keeping you from your great work?

You’ve read the stories: the artists, the writers, the musicians, the visionaries—quitting their jobs to follow their dreams and actually making it.

You want that life, so much you can taste it. It’s not that you don’t know how. So why aren’t you living it? What do those people have that you don’t?

Personally, I always assumed it was an exemption from the rules of reality. Those people had been sprinkled with some kind of magical “special dust” at birth, and everything they touched turned to gold. I, on the other hand, was just a regular person, so it couldn’t happen for me. I’d better stay in my cubicle, keep my head down, and be grateful I didn’t have it worse.

But somehow, I just couldn’t rest. I felt like I was wasting my life, marking time, watching it all slip away. The thought of waking up in 10 years, still doing the same thing, made me want to scream. Ten years, hell—even the thought of waking up Monday required a lot of mental sedation.

I found that I could get through my life just fine if I shut off my brain and coasted during the boring parts. Unfortunately, the boring parts were almost everything I did. If I kept coasting and fast-forwarding, exactly where was I trying to get? The end?

The thought terrified me. When was I going to do the actual living part?

A wake-up call

Then one day, something terrible happened at the university where I worked. One of the biology professors went into a Friday afternoon faculty meeting and started shooting her colleagues. Three people died, and more would have if the gun hadn’t jammed.

It was a total shock, and the university community staggered through the rest of the semester in a confused, wounded daze.

Nobody knew what to do… except the remaining biology professors. They organized memorials and support groups, comforted and leaned on each other, and got back into the classrooms and the research labs. They couldn’t stand to have this tragedy keep them from their important work.

These profs could easily have sued the university for mental anguish and never had to work again. But they really wanted to get back to doing what they loved, so that’s what they did.

In my beige, zoned-out existence, I could barely comprehend it. But I knew I had to make my life like that.

These professors weren’t non-conformists, revolutionaries, or miracle people. On the contrary, they had tenure and a pension plan. Yet they had created a life they wouldn’t change, even after facing down death.

If they could do it, maybe I could, too. So I started trying. After a lot of false starts and a ton of hard work (not to mention invaluable guidance from Jonathan!), I quit my job last summer. I’m as ordinary as they come, but I’m following my dream.

What it really takes

What I’ve learned is that living your dream life has nothing to do with specialness. It’s not even a matter of hard work—you need that, but it’s not enough.

The biggest thing standing between most people and their dreams is themselves.

We know the official reasons why we can’t do something. It’s dangerous, we don’t have enough money, we don’t know how, we’re too busy, it’s too hard, we’re tired, we have to take care of the kids/wife/dog/hamster.

But the truth is, we’re afraid of our dreams. We cling to these excuses because we know that, as long as we have them, we’re off the hook. We can keep things as they are: known and safe. We don’t have to risk making fools of ourselves or failing.

The only problem is, when we do the mental calculation and decide our dreams are too risky, we never figure in the cost of staying put. The cost of spending 20 years marking time, doing things you don’t care about. The cost of all the aspirin required to ease your daily boredom headache. The cost of all the hours and days when you shut off your brain and press fast-forward.

If you truly want to follow your dream, the key is recognizing your fear. Name it, face it, pin it down. Then overcome it and do what you want to do. Your life is waiting.

My special gift to Illuminated Mind readers

I know how hard it is to overcome your fears and go after your dreams. Jonathan has helped me with mine, more than I can ever express, so I’d like to give something back to him, and to you. (In case you couldn’t tell, Jonathan is my hero and I’d follow him anywhere!)

That’s why I’ve put together a resource kit just for you. Check it out: Fear-Kicking Dream-Following Kit

Here’s what’s inside:

  1. “What’s Stopping You?” This guide includes how to figure out what’s holding you back, how to get clear on what you want, how to know whether you should take a risk or listen to your fears (they are right some of the time!), and what to do to make your efforts more likely to succeed.
  2. A workbook designed to help you nail down your fears so you can get moving toward your dreams.

Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to check out the Fear-Kicking Dream-Following Kit

About the Author: Cara writes at 17000 Days, a blog about remembering that life is short and making your best days a common occurrence. She’s a big believer in self-reinvention and building your ideal life for yourself. Her latest adventure is Beyond Fear, a workshop on overcoming your fears.

photo courtesy of jeevan jose

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18 Comments on "What’s Keeping You From Your Great Work?"

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My thoughts are resonating with yours.  I find that I am, most times, my worst enemy, my own resistance.  I’d rather do… x than push past the boundary of fear.  It’s like exposing myself to the world when I forge into the fear.   The world will see the poser in me, and that scares the “crap” out of me.   


 @JuliaElliottSpencer Exactly! Have you read anything about Impostor Syndrome? I just discovered it when I was working on my workshop on overcoming fear, and it explains a lot about me–exactly like you said, feeling like a poser, being afraid of being exposed. For me, it was a relief to understand it better and know it wasn’t just me.


Fantastic post Cara. Everything you said resonated with me. Thank you.


 @MakeMeJoyful Thanks–I’m glad it spoke to you!


Thank you for this post.  I’m living like this now, having had a similar “lucky to be alive” experience.  I share your wish for everyone….it should not take near-death experiences for everyday people to start living.


 @LeahJay Yes!! It’s so easy to get hypnotized by everyday life and forget we don’t have forever. Good for you!


My fear…..When the *Living* means leaving someone that has been very important to you. Thoughts?

 @MistyDenson I’ve been in situations like that, and it is hard! I don’t know what your exact situation is, but I feel for you.   A lot of times, it’s not all or nothing–you can live your best life and be your full self without harming the other person or having to split from them. But sometimes, that just isn’t possible. For me, the conclusion I came to was that I wasn’t doing the other person or myself any favors by living less than fully. I couldn’t be a good companion or partner because I was too stifled and resentful.… Read more »

I’ve made some pretty big life-changing moves in my life that usually start when I simply can no longer take doing what I’m doing any longer.   My ultimate fear-bashing question to myself is: What’s the worst that could happen?  If it’s not my death then it’s not that bad and I figure out how to move forward.  And don’t let other people’s judgments, criticisms and opinions get in your way.  That’s just their fears talking.  Great post Cara!


 @PaigeBurkes Yes!!!
I’m amazed at what insignificant things will hold me back if I let them. The other day, I wanted to go for a walk in the woods, but it was starting to sprinkle. I could hear the nay-sayer voice in my head:  “Don’t go! You’ll be sorry!” But really all I was afraid of is that I’d get a little wet. OMG, end of the world there! I agree with you–“What’s the worst that could happen?” is a powerful question.
Thanks for your insights!


Yo Cara,
Killer post. Got me all tingly.
When I went all-in on my dreams, it was when I really envisioned how it would feel to NOT be the man, who I always wanted to be… this wise, old man with a huge twinkle in his eye from living a full life. This was devastating to think I could just be some ordinary old dude one day, so I got crackin’ immediately.
I still keep that image in my head to keep me going.


 @BenjaminOliverJenks Thanks, man–that feels great to hear! I love the inspiration you’re using, too–that’s what it’s all about! Keep on rockin’!


Absolute truth.
Can’t add much, other than a big thank you for sharing your story and your insights.


Well said Cara:
“The biggest thing standing between most people and their dreams is themselves.”
This is one of those points that I couldn’t possibly hear enough.
It’s always inspirational to hear it from different perspectives too…it helps us realize that we’re not alone in any of this.
We’re all just doing our best to tell that little (but oh so powerful) voice of skepticism to shut up so we can get to work on what we care about.


One of the scariest and liberating realizations that I have ever had is that if I am going to make the most of my life then I have to do it. I cannot blame fate, luck, chance, or anything else. I have to do it. When I first realized this it was scary because it also meant that I couldn’t make any excuses. 
I enjoyed this post. I’ll check out your blog :)


[…] Sometimes you have to dig deep and ask the important questions! What’s Holding You Back? […]


[…] Sometimes you have to dig deep and ask the important questions! What’s Holding You Back? […]

Bruno Coelho
Hi Cara and thank you so much for sharing such an inspirational and empowering post. In your introduction, I felt that you were talking directly to me. I’m also a Trailblazer on the journey to be 100% dedicated to what I’m meant to do: helping dreamers who are tired of being slaves of someone else’s dream, to become ALL that they can be, so they can start living a life worth dying for. Isn’t it interesting that everything around us is dying? We don’t usually see this because we take so much for granted… Even each breath you’re taking right… Read more »

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