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The Toll Booth Collector

June 5, 2018

You’re driving down the highway. It’s a comfortable, straightforward ride, and you’re blazing ahead. But you have this nagging sensation. Something tells you that you need a change of scenery. Something beckons from beyond.

So you take the next exit. You turn off the highway—unsure of what lies ahead, but certain that something is pulling you toward this untrodden path.

Up ahead, you see a toll booth. You creep up to it, and you get your first look at the toll booth collector. He has a long face and a dark demeanor. He voice is darker still as he growls out the cost of the toll.

“Holy toledo!” you exclaim. The amount he demands sounds ludicrous to you.

The toll collector isn’t surprised by your reaction. At this stage, most people spin around and return to the Default State Highway in a huff. Others fumble around, questioning whether the off-road trip is worth it—and whether they themselves are worth it—before they apologize and return to the highway, too.

But you’re different. You know that adventures aren’t free. You know that leaving the Default State Highway itself has a price. You know that everything and anything in life costs something.

So you pay the toll collector. The coinage weighs heavy in your hand as you drop it in his hardened, callous hands.

He shakes around the coins, giving them a jiggle. He can sense their weight and their value to you.

A wry smirk of a smile emerges on his long face.

“On your way,” his dark voice looms. You experience a strange sense of relief and trepidation, a combination of fear and excitement.

The barrier creaks as it lifts. The toll collector can see the paradox in your eyes. He chuckles—he’s seen this before, too.

You creep forward past the barrier—cautiously at first and then with increasing speed. Soon enough you’re flying ahead. And you never look back.

Freedom isn’t free

When we want to take a leap into the unknown—when we want to make a change—we do it because of the potential gains. We dream of becoming an artist because we’ll be able to express ourselves creatively. We dream of running our own business because we’ll be able to set our own schedule. We dream of becoming a leader because we’ll be able to inspire and influence other people.

The potential gains are alluring. The trouble is that we often forget the other side of the equation.

We forget that freedom isn’t free.

It’s easy to confuse freedom with pleasure. We think that freedom will rid us of all our ills. We think that freedom means perfect harmony, balance and joy. But that’s not how it works.

More freedom involves, if anything, more displeasure. Sure, there might be more pleasure with freedom. But there’s more displeasure, too. There’s more risk.

Every step in a new direction has a cost. Here’s a few examples:

  • The price of more creativity is more structure. To be creative you need the physical and mental space to do so. It demands structure of your time. It demands boundaries to the physical and online worlds. It demands saying no to your friends who want to drink a mid-morning macchiato when you’re in the zone. “The way to get over creative block is to place some constraints on yourself,” says creativity expert Austin Kleon. “It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.”
  • The price of self-discovery is shame and guilt. If you start trekking on your own path, you’ll soon discover how much of your identity comes from what people expect of you. Every step toward your new situation, and away from your comfortable old surroundings, swells with pain. You feel guilty about leaving the group behind. You feel shame about putting your needs before others. “Because we instinctually avoid guilt, we get stuck in life,” says Jeff Riddle. “This means to have life be better, we have to feel guilt.”
  • The price of growth is pain. People talk about how much they’re learning on the job. But although they might have learned, they haven’t truly grown. They haven’t transformed into a more complex organism that’s more capable of new challenges. Real growth demands real pain. If you lift weights, your muscles won’t grow unless you feel some serious discomfort. The same goes with skill development. If you’re not in discomfort—if you’re not questioning whether to go on, if you’re not doubting yourself and your abilities, if you’re not on the verge of tears—you’re not really growing.

Getting to the next level of who you are isn’t cheap. The cost is the old you. You pay by leaving behind what you thought you knew. What got you here won’t get you there. Another way of putting it is: “What must die in you, so that you may live?

This might sound dreary. But it’s anything but—because we can reverse engineer the system.

If growth costs pain, then we know that we should embrace pain. If we know that no discomfort equals no growth, then we will avoid situations that don’t challenge us. We’ll seek truly uncomfortable situations because we know they lead to growth. We won’t wait for the “perfect conditions” to develop, because we’ll know that “perfect conditions” actually prevent us from growing.

This doesn’t mean you should seek pain for the sake of it. Meaningless, self-imposed self-flagellation is nothing but tragic.

But what it does mean is that when you’re in an agonizing practice session, almost crying of discomfort, you know that it will lead to the growth you want. It means that if you feel guilt after having left your job, you know that it’s because you’re creating yourself. It means that if you feel constricted by your own rules, you know that it’s allowing you to be freer in your creative endeavors.

This awareness means you can see pain and the other discomforts for what they are: costs. They are the price of admission. They are the toll for what lies beyond. And this awareness can prevent you from allowing these costs to turn into something far worse: suffering. As Haruki Murakami says: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Not less than everything

Everything has a price. Anxiety is the price of self-awareness. Risk is the price of high-value outcomes. Uncertainty is the price of adventure. Limitation is the price of freedom. The old is the price of the new.

The toll booth collector sits at the edge of the old and the new, always. “Most of us have two lives,” says author Steven Pressfield. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” The toll booth collector is the resistance.

So the question is: Are you going to let the toll collector put you off? Or will you see him as a beacon pointing you to where you want to go?

The choice is yours. Know that it will be costly. But freedom ain’t free.

“Fully alive and deeply committed is a risky business,” says Steven Kotler. “Once you strip away the platitudes, a life of passion and purpose will always cost, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, ‘Not less than everything.’”

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