Do you and your lizard live in a van down by the river?

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Hi everyone!

Sorry for the lack of posts this week — I have running around a bit more than usual and didn’t have time to write.

I just finished this post for Martha Beck’s blog.  It is on a favorite topic:  lizard fears that get in the way of you realizing your dreams.  And I got to reference one of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches of all time:  Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker.  Here is the video which had me rolling on the floor:

Enjoy the post!


I listened intently to my highly educated and successful client express his fears about quitting his job to start a business.

"What are you really afraid of?"  I said.

"When it comes down to it, I am afraid of living on the street and eating garbage out of a dumpster."

This fear is very common for people who are making significant career or life changes. It doesn’t matter how much experience they have or how much money sits in their bank account, they feel as though one wrong move will utterly destroy their lives.

This is no accident.

We all receive multiple messages a day about how there are not enough resources in the world to support us ("The economy is falling!"  "There are no good men left in New York!" "I must eat the WHOLE cake, or never eat again!")  and how we should be very afraid of the future ("The ice caps are melting!"  "Serial killers are on the loose!"  "The terrorists are coming!".) Martha calls this the Wizard vs. Lizard battle for your brain in her new book Steering by Starlight.

What is lizard brain?

One of the deepest layers of your brain is a neural structure evolved in early vertebrates. It is wrapped around the cortex of your brain and blasts signals on a regular basis intended to keep you fed and out of danger.  Martha says in Steering by Starlight:

The entire purpose of your reptile brain is to continually broadcast survival fears- alarm reactions that keep animals alive in the wild. These fears fall into two different categories: lack, and attack. On one hand, our reptile brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: we don’t have enough time, money, everything. On the other hand, something terrible is about to happen. A predator– human or animal–is poised to snatch us! That makes sense if we’re hiding in a cave somewhere, but when we’re home in bed, our imaginations can fixate on catastrophes that are so vague and hard to ward off that they fill us with anxiety that has no clear action implication.

Animals will live longer when obsessed with getting more resources and avoiding danger.

Humans, on the other hand, especially those of us driving minivans and owning large-screen televisions, carry that same instinct, without facing the same dire situations. This leads us to act in all kinds of unpleasant ways, including paranoid, greedy, suspicious and desperate.  The more we listen to our inner lizard, the more we are pulled toward a fate we most fear:

  • A salesperson, certain that he won’t be able to sell a thing in a tight economy, calls the same prospect five times in one week, leading him to be permanently blacklisted from the company.
  • A jealous boyfriend, convinced his girlfriend is cheating on him, secretly monitors her cellphone calls, follows her, breaks into her email and has a fit whenever she wants to go out with friends.  Guess what happens?  She packs her bags as fast as she can (unless her lizard fear is "I will never find another man" in which case she marries him, stays in relationship hell for a decade or two before having a heart attack from the stress)
  • A young woman, so terrified that she will make a fool of herself presenting to a debate team for the first time, actually passes out when she gets to the podium.  In this case, it was Martha, as described in Finding Your Own North Star (Coincidentally, as lizard wizardry works, when her worst nightmare was realized, she overcame her deathly fear of speaking and went on to be a secure and polished presenter.)

Examples of Lizard Fears:

"I’ll never find love"

"Something may have gone right, but you know that other shoe is going to drop"

"You can’t trust anyone in this rotten world."

"I have to keep secrets; people will use information to hurt me."

"Ultimately, everyone will betray me."
"The minute I get anything, someone will take it from me."

"Nice guys always end up getting screwed."

"Successful people have all the luck – I just get bad breaks."

Notice the lack and attack themes that permeate these thoughts?  If you want to make progress towards your goals, you must learn to tame your inner lizard.  Here are five ways, summarized from Steering by Starlight. Read the rest here.

P.S.  My Dad, Lewis Stewart, took the picture of Jorge the Lizard.

17 Responses to “Do you and your lizard live in a van down by the river?”

  1. […] Pam Slim from Escape Cubicle Nation says people’s greatest fears about starting a business is that they’ll end up living in a van down the river, lose their home, their partner and all access to credit to name a few. […]

  2. It’s so key that you pointed out the “lack mindset.” Making the shift from fear to love has been majorly helpful for myself in the past year. When I consciously shifted my perspective to one of love for myself instead of fear I was able to start manifesting more positive results. I was able to see clearly what I deserved and could accomplish. (And I’ve taken action)

    I started coming from a place of passion and clarity. When I had clarity I no longer had to question purpose. I was able to take action. Even if it meant wandering for a bit until I found my exact path.

    The fear of the unknown (Even if it’s good for me) can often times be more scary than the known (which is living in lack) It’s understanding this aspect and becoming conscious of it that has helped me operate more from love than from fear.

  3. Sonicsuns says:

    “The Lizard and the Wizard.”

    I like that. People need to understand their own minds better, in order to find success.

  4. […] And even if you are committed to the entrepreneurial path, building a business can take quite a while. In the meantime, you’ll have to find something else to pay the bills and make sure you don’t end up in a van down by the river. […]

  5. […] think that once in awhile?), or that I will be living in a van down by the river soon (thanks to Pam Slim for reminding me of that SNL sketch in a way that’s actually useful and […]

  6. Shannon Tancock says:

    What a great post. I am still cracking up at the title. You are my blog mentor!!!

  7. This video was hilarious. Like a connection of Steve Ballmer and Monty Python.

  8. MTaylan says:

    This was a great post. I resonates well with the concepts in “The War of Art, Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.” I want to add that our lizard brain is well supported with another layer that keeps asking us to provide for our families and don’t risk losing anything we already own.

    I think the key is to turn this fear into a feeling of increased committment and motivation to realize our mission in life fully when we get out of our cublicles.

  9. Greg says:

    Hey thanks for using my video in your post. While I was making it, I watched it hundreds of times & it still makes me laugh.

    Thanks so much for sharing it on YouTube Greg! It is really wonderful and a great way to enjoy the hilarious content.

    Take care and keep up the good work!


  10. Eric Deeter says:

    Thanks for this post. My most recent experience with the Lizard was last fall when I had 2 of my rentals go vacant and a fix and flip that didn’t sell. I played a “worst-case scenario” what-if game. Even at that I knew I wouldn’t have to live in a van by the river & so relaxed and carried on.

  11. Andy Pels says:

    Just to clarify – I’m not saying I don’t still get freaked out (I do at about 4:30 most mornings), but perspective helps overcome it.

  12. Andy Pels says:

    As far as the fear of living in a van down by the river goes, I have a recording of an episode from Little House on the Prairie (I wasn’t kidding about it being in my top three favorite TV shows of all time) called “The Richest Man In Walnut Grove”. I review it on occasion, not only to calm my fears and remind me what things are most important, but also for the incredible entrepreneurial spirit included in the plot. Plus it has Miss Beadle in it, and let’s face it, she’s HOT! Set your recorder to catch this episode in reruns and you’ll see what I mean. Then try to complain about your van.

  13. Lara says:

    Great post! Thank you for this reminder. I have heard & read a bit about the lizard brain but the specific examples you gave really drove the point home for me. I’m currently leaving a FT job to transition into the entrepreneurial world so your examples helped me hear my own lizard thoughts. Now I’m letting them go! Thank you – looking forward to future posts from you.



  14. dianne says:

    Lost all respect for Martha Beck when I saw her disguise one of her coaches by dying her hair and placing her in Oprah’s audience giving a “turn-around story testimonial” for Martha’s coaching. Really low behavior on Martha’s and Oprahs parts.

    Dianne, you didn’t mention names, but I assume you were talking about Meadow who was on the show? I checked with her and she told me that all was above-board – Oprah’s producer’s knew she was a MB coach, Martha introduced her as such, and that part was edited out.

    I have had nothing but positive, ethical interactions with both Martha and Meadow, so that is the place I come from.



  15. Steve says:

    Stop reading my mind! It scares me. Great post. It’s funny how you think your fears and anxieties are yours alone but it is also comforting to know everyone has them. I applaud those with the courage to slay (or at least suppress) their inner lizards. Thanks.

    Shoot, you figured out my mind reading abilities Steve, I will have to be more careful. 🙂

    We ALL have the lizard fears. And they won’t stop anytime soon — so getting to know and love your lizard tunes is the best way to overcome them. Good luck!


  16. lilalia says:

    My sister quit her job seven years ago to start up her own business. She loves her business; doesn’t really have anything but her business, yet she struggles with her lifestyle. From my perspective, she quit her job, but carted all of heavy luggage over into her new life. She earns a good yearly income, but it all goes into paying off her huge debt: large house, car, and other expenses. Doesn’t wanting out of cubicle nation also mean wanting out of its many entrapments? Doesn’t that highly successful client know that it is a long slide down from where he is now to where his lizard mind is taking him?

    Thought you would enjoy this:


    Great comment!

    I don’t necessarily see the “escape from cubicle nation” and “live without a lot of stuff” as directly correlated. But many people find that as they get closer to their right life, the need for lots of stuff decreases. Hope your sis finds a good balance w/lots of happiness.

    Love the illustration! Kind of reminds me of the one I shared from “the disillusionment cafe” cartoon on a post awhile ago:

    Cheers and hugs,

  17. I have read many times that the people who most fear quitting their jobs are the people who are in the most actual danger by staying in them! For example: Person who is underearning and will not make enough to secure a retirement fears taking the risk that is absolutely necessary to move to a higher income bracket. Or, person whose job stress is literally killing him/her now but is more worried about starving to death 20 years from now than the heart attack that just a couple of hairy projects away.