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:
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.