On Boldness and Earl Grey

November 5, 2011

I've been doing something every morning – call it a daily practice – that reminds me to be bold.

I've given myself an assignment: to drink whatever flavor of tea I like. Successfully completing this task requires that I chose whichever one I damn well know I want that day – and in so doing give myself permission to make a decision for the sole reason of my own preference, taking no other considerations into account.

I have taken many calculated risks in my life: traveling to Syria by myself just for fun; volunteering in Cambodia during three months of monsoon season; picking public fights with powerful men in tech; running an experimental pie cart on the sidewalks of Portland, Oregon; quitting a perfectly wonderful job to start a women’s jeans company. Boldness has always served me well but it doesn't come easily and I have to talk myself into it every time.

All year, I’ve started each day by trundling into the kitchen, shielding my eyes from the Portland gloom. The cat yowls encouragement only because she lacks thumbs to open the can of Fancy Feast Chicken and Cheese with Gravy.

I open the drawer and survey my choices – ginger peach, Tokyo green, milk oolong, Paris black, Earl Grey. Such a stupidly simple task. Yet I find my head is cluttered with arguing voices. The “I” that is “I” makes the decision in an instant.

The voices shout back.

"You've had Earl Grey five days in a row."

"You're almost out of oolong, you better save it."

"It's too expensive, drink the cheaper one."

"If you don't like the ginger peach, why do you even have it? You should drink it so it doesn't get lonely."

What a bunch of bullshit. It’s all noise. Take the time to unwind those statements and they’re just a pile of petty judgments.

I've done years of work identifying the difference between “me,” and “a voice in my head.” Doing the topic justice would take a book. In a nutshell, though, a “voice” is the old self protecting me from an old fear. When the voice tells me not to drink the expensive tea, that's the poor kid who grew up on food stamps talking. I named the voice who tries to keep me from living in a trailer park (again): Hi, Penny. She's a part of my history and will always be with me, but she is not me. Critically, she doesn't make the decisions.

I'm not her – not anymore.

I call this a practice because it’s a daily mental workout of setting an intention to connect with my gut instincts. The rest of the day, as I make decisions, there will be voices, telling me many things. Some of them, I will believe (I should believe even fewer of them). The chatter of past selves takes me away from the wisdom of my instincts, the sum of all that I know in this moment. If I don't practice listening, I won't be able to hear my present self.

As soon as I pick up the tin of Earl Grey, the voices silence. They lost. The end. I enjoy the tea – fully. I'm always pleased with my choice.

The voices seize onto the next topic as soon as it arises, of course. But I've flexed my muscle. I've reminded myself I have the strength to choose what serves the present me.

I'd love to hear what you do in your daily life to help you be more bold. Boldness is contagious, so please share yours. I'm on the Twitter at @crystaldbeasley.

Thanks to Stefan Sagmeister for inspiring this essay in the first place.

Discover more in the archive!