Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Sit Chilly”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 23, 2011

My friend Daphne used to take riding lessons from a legendary horsewoman in Carmel Valley, California named Sue Sally Hale. Have you ever heard of Sue Sally?

Sue Sally competed in polo matches for twenty years disguised as a man (she used to daub mascara on her upper lip to simulate a mustache, while tucking her long hair up under her helmet) before finally being admitted, in 1972, as the U.S.P.A.’s first female member. Sue Sally had a mantra that she taught her polo, dressage and jumping students:

“Sit chilly.”

I’m not a rider but apparently it can get pretty scary in steeplechase or hunter jumper competitions when you’re up there on the back of a thousand or twelve-hundred-pound equine athlete, galloping all-out at a fence or a stone wall. You don’t know if the horse will attempt the jump and miss, in which case you’ll both go flying, or if he’ll refuse to take the jump, stop short, and send you sailing head-first out of your stirrups into thin air.

To complicate matters, the rider’s “seat”–meaning the way she sits in the saddle–is how her intentions are communicated to the ultra-sensitive mount beneath her. If the rider sits fidgety or spooky, the horse knows instantly. At that point, anything can happen. So Sue Sally always taught, “Sit chilly.”

She meant stay cool, keep focused, banish all fear and trepidation.

In my twenties, I used to drive tractor-trailers. There was a mountain road that drivers from our company used to take from western North Carolina through Virginia to Ronceverte, West Virginia. I’ve forgotten what loads we were hauling, or even what factory we were hauling to, but I will never forget the terror of driving those mountain roads at night. The highway was two-lane, no lights; it dipped and twisted and climbed like a roller coaster. The thing about driving tractor-trailers in the mountains is you can’t chicken out and use a low gear on the downhills or you’ll hit the next uphill carrying no speed and no momentum; you’ll wind up crawling uphill in second or third gear, while every other truck on the mountain piles up behind you, cursing you for a fool. Plummeting downhill in the dark, I was white-knuckling big-time. “Sit chilly.” That was my mantra. I thought of Sue Sally and hung on for dear life.

As artists and entrepreneurs, we have to sit chilly sometimes.

When we’re growing, when we’re evolving to a higher plane, particularly when we’re poised on the threshold of that next level … that’s when panic strikes. For me it comes at night. I wake up and my thoughts are disordered. I’m scared. I can’t string two coherent sentences together. The feeling is claustrophobic. I’m trapped inside my own fevered skull.

I have to tell myself to sit chilly.

What I love about Sue Sally’s phrase is that it’s more precise—and far more evocative—than, say, “Stay cool” or “Chill.”

“Sit” speaks volumes. It means don’t move. Don’t freak, don’t bolt, don’t squirm, don’t get all herky-jerky. Just stay where you are. You’re fine right there.

And I love the “chilly” part. Chilly is cooler than cool. It’s icy, it’s frigid. But it’s active too. It has an edge to it. And it’s funny. It’s much funnier to be sitting chilly than to be sitting cool.

There are challenges that you and I face as artists and entrepreneurs that call for bold and aggressive action. Sometimes we have to kick some ass—our own or somebody else’s. Sometimes we have to show cojones. Leap off the cliff. Charge at the dragon. Risk everything on one roll of the dice.

“Sit chilly” isn’t a mantra for those times.

“Sit chilly” works, instead, for moments when our only enemy is our own imagination. In a “sit chilly” moment, everything is fine–but we’re panicking anyway. In fact, things are too fine. We’re doing great. Triumph looms. Our dreams are so close, we can reach out and touch them.

What’s the bogey man? That most terrifying of all prospects: success.

Remember that famous British poster from WWII: “Stay Calm and Carry On?” That’s what Sue Sally was saying. That’s what we have to do in moments of terror. Let the horse run. Let him jump.

Don’t squirm in the saddle. Don’t squeeze your knees. Don’t lean right, left or forward. Stay balanced. Leap to no dire conclusions. Don’t decide at three in the morning that your life is worthless or that this journey that you have launched yourself upon is wrong, crazy, and doomed to destruction.

Breathe like a champion.

Maintain your posture.

Sit chilly.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

18 Responses to ““Sit Chilly””

  1. March 23, 2011 at 2:04 am

    Hi Steve,

    Another wonderful post! I love reading your edgy, gruff prose.

    By the way, the WWII slogan was “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

    Thanks,
    -Shashi

  2. Craig
    March 23, 2011 at 5:42 am

    Very useful notion. In tennis there’s something similar. While using your legs to cover the court as quickly as you can, you want your upper body to remain stable, even motionless if possible. Especially when hitting the ball. That’s what enables you to hit an accurate, reliable groundstroke. Think of it like a lever-and-fulcrum mechanism: your arm is the lever, your torso is the fulcrum. If the fulcrum is in motion, you have no stable base from which to exert leverage. So stay balanced, stay still…and sit chilly.

  3. skip
    March 23, 2011 at 5:46 am

    mine has always been “stay cool”…i used to own 8 horses and had too many close calls riding them…!…”stay cool” helped…worst driving experience in montana in january…trying to beat a winter storm, needing to drive 240 miles back to college…roads got all iced up, temps down to zero…took 8 hours…night driving to boot…”stay cool”…i got back to dorm, looked in mirror…saw that i had completely bit thru my lower lip…!…blood all over me and i never knew it…”stay cool”.

  4. March 23, 2011 at 7:03 am

    Love the post. And needed it today.

  5. March 23, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Biggest roadblock for martial arts students was improvement. Your eye and feel would develop first, you’d start to notice mistakes and flaws you never saw before. Students would take this as sign they were moving backwards, as if the mistakes and flaws were appearing. The reverse was true, once you perceive the mistakes you can eliminate them and improve, move to the next level. But it’s scary, disheartening, and many people don’t make it through that period of transition. That’s when you’re your own worst enemy. That’s the time to ‘sit chilly.’

  6. Matt Damon
    March 23, 2011 at 8:07 am

    This guy looks like he’s sitting chilly, he left his Counterterrorism Analysis job and put the entire book he wrote up online for free, he’s just charging people to download it to their e-readers if they start it and like it.

  7. March 23, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Steven: yet again, perfect timing. I’m a few months away from a book release, chewing on the walls. It can’t get here fast enough. I’m asking myself, “What am I not doing that I should be doing?”

    And the answer–for now–is to sit chilly.

    But the great part about doing work that matters to me is I can go kick ass on another project while I let this one breathe.

    Many thanks for this one.

  8. March 23, 2011 at 10:38 am

    WOW! I am experiencing this exact set of emotions. I am making progress towards my goal, but there is a temptation to try and push harder by making a huge life decision. I am getting confirmation from different resources that staying put a little longer is the best thing to do. Even though I think I am beginning to understand that I wake up with panicky thoughts. I am anxious and yet can see that my anxiousness is not taking me anywhere.

    It helps to know others face this.

    Thank you.

    -Bobby

  9. March 23, 2011 at 10:48 am

    “Don’t decide at three in the morning that your life is worthless or that this journey that you have launched yourself upon is wrong, crazy, and doomed to destruction.”

    Great advice!

    • Marianne
      March 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm

      ditto

  10. March 24, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Sit chilly is good, Steve. I’m at the point where I have no option but to completely let go and let the trading system I’ve designed for myself take over. I have a good method, but I’ve been fearful of fully implementing it. Gotta make the leap–today!

  11. March 24, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Wonderful post, Steve. I rode jumpers in High School, and hadn’t thought of it in years. Great life lesson!

  12. March 24, 2011 at 9:12 am

    As a rider and as a writer, this really resonated…struggling with some of those “why am I spending so much time on a pursuit without knowing if it will ever succeed” feelings this week, I appreciate the encouragement!

  13. March 24, 2011 at 9:32 am

    The one thing I remember about playing polo with Sue Sally Hale was when she was “going for the ball” — get out of her way! She played like a man, cussed like a sailor and had a heart of gold. Her daughter Sunny, by the way, is (or was) the top ranked female player in the U.S. if not the world.

    • March 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm

      Barry, were you ever in Carmel Valley in the days when Sue Sally taught there?

      • March 31, 2011 at 9:19 am

        Nope, she had a ranch in Moorpark, down here in Southern CA. A bunch of us would go out there on occasion and play “arena polo.” We’re talking over 20 years ago. I think Stormy, one of her other daughters, might still have the place.

  14. March 24, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Hey Steven, I stopped by to say hello and let you know I slipped a reference to your lucky hooded sweatshirt. :)

    http://www.faithbarista.com/2011/03/reading-helps-reduce-stress-what-do-you-read-for-soul-rest/

    I have been reading your book dog-eared, as I’m making my last laps around the track of my book proposal.

    I was seized with writer’s epilepsy this week. And wouldn’t you know it, you wrote this post just for me.

    Thank you, Steven. 😉

  15. Denise
    May 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Divine Timing. Thanks! I reeeally needed that.