How to Fight a Hydra: Face Your Fears, Pursue Your Ambitions, and Become the Hero You Are Destined to Be
Josh Kaufman

Ended: Nov. 3, 2018

I cannot control the outcome of my quest. I can only control myself: how I prepare, how I manage my fears, and how I conduct myself in the battle to come.
Every time I’m tempted to complain about the difficulty and unfairness of life, I remind myself that I knew it was going to be hard before I left home, and that there is no victory without struggle. I have to keep going and hope for the best.
The world is full of caverns. How can you know which ones hold treasure? You can’t know for sure, but there are clues. The shallow caves you can see into from the outside don’t contain anything worthwhile. They’re too easy: anything they once held is long gone. You’re looking for a deep, dark, ominous cavern: something that scares you.
There’s no sense in fighting with a dull, rusty sword. Invest your gold in well-forged weapons. Keep your sword sharp, your torches ready, and your armor well-maintained. Take care of your tools, learn how to use them, and they’ll serve you well.
Your mind can invent horrors beyond those that actually exist. Rumination is not your friend. Action allows you to see the situation for what it really is. You’re afraid that you’re not good enough to handle what Fortune and happenstance have in store for you. You’re afraid it’s all going to go wrong and all of your efforts will be for naught. You’re afraid tomorrow will be the day you die. The root of all fear is the unknown and unknowable future, which cannot be predicted or controlled. Fear of the unknown will always be with you, no matter what you do. That’s comforting in a way: if there’s nothing you can do to change it, there’s no reason to let it stop you.
Risk is an unavoidable part of adventuring. A single mistake, made out of ignorance or carelessness, can kill you. Only a fool relies solely on their resilience to mitigate damage. It’s far better to learn to anticipate incoming strikes and not be there when they arrive. The wise adventurer spends just as much time learning how to evade being hit as they invest in improving their skill with the sword and torch. Treasure isn’t valuable if you’re not around to enjoy it. Wisdom consists of anticipating and preventing avoidable mistakes.
No matter how careful you are, you will make mistakes. After every engagement, there will be a hundred things that, looking back, you could’ve done better. Since that’s the case, the best approach is to make valuable mistakes: experiments that give you useful information and help you improve.
Over the course of your adventuring career, you’ll earn more than a few battle scars. That’s fine, as long as you expect it. The novices who quit are the ones who think this profession is all glory and heroics. They’re the ones who experience the dire consequences of foolish risks or give up the moment they take a scratch. Knowing it’s going to be difficult makes it easier to keep going.
Everyone wants a guaranteed reward before they put themselves at risk. The world does not work that way. Not everyone succeeds. No matter how much you plan or prepare, a good portion of the outcome will remain in the hands of Fortune and happenstance. Generations have railed against this reality to no avail. On the other hand, you can’t succeed if you never try. Fortune tends to smile on those who act, even when the final outcome is not guaranteed. At some point, you must choose to move forward, do what you can, and hope for the best.
No one adventures forever. There will come a day when you don your armor and unsheathe your sword for the last time. When that day comes, face it with courage and a clear mind. Ending a chapter of your life on your own terms is a feat worthy of respect and admiration.
In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphor is at the core of language and perception, both of which profoundly influence our thoughts and actions. The metaphors we use determine how we understand and relate to everything we experience in our daily lives. Consider Lakoff and Johnson’s most vivid example: if “argument is war,” that metaphorical framework sets the terms and tone of every step of each subsequent interaction. If “argument is a dance,” future conversations will look very different.
The metaphor “projects are Hydras” is a useful way to change the way you think about complex projects and the fundamental nature of every form of creative or speculative work: Ambitious projects require that you handle competing demands, which are constantly changing in unpredictable ways. Immediate victory is not possible: completing the project requires substantial risk and sustained effort. You know it’s going to be difficult before you begin, and you prepare accordingly. You can’t be sure of the outcome until you invest your time and effort, and there is no guaranteed return on your investment. The best general strategy is to focus on completing one critical task at a time.
The Adventurer’s advice has roots in a wide variety of fields: behavioral psychology, project management, military doctrine, martial arts, systems theory, and several branches of world philosophy. How to Fight a Hydra summarizes many of the core ideas from each of these fields. The fictional context allowed me to explore many different applications of these ideas, and use more evocative language and examples. I hope you found the result interesting and useful.
Uncertainty, complexity, variability, and ambiguity are unavoidable parts of adventuring: you will not be able to guarantee victory in advance. You have to decide on a course of action, prepare as best you can, move forward, and hope for the best.
Some people will support your desire to adventure, and others will not. Do not let their doubts and concerns dissuade you if you've decided the experience, benefits, and potential rewards are worth the risks.
Every adventurer feels afraid, and has doubts about their ability. That's normal, not a sign of weakness or cowardice.
Every adventure requires a certain amount of exploration. You will spend time lost in the wilderness, uncertain about which way to go. You can't eliminate it: exploration is an unavoidable part of adventuring.
The struggle will always take longer, and feel more difficult, than you expect. Knowing it's going to be difficult makes it easier to keep going.
Stories are embellished to make the telling more interesting: they contain only the highlights, and omit extended periods of trepidation, anxiety, and toil. Take heart: every hero struggles with the same difficulties.
Sharpening your abilities and learning new skills are excellent uses of your time and energy.
The path to victory: keep moving toward your objective, undeterred by hardship.
Take care of your health: perseverance depends on your physical, mental, and emotional fortitude.
Experiment with different approaches until you find something that works.
Pay attention to your environment, and look for opportunities to put yourself in advantageous circumstances.
Confidence is a potent ally: trust your experience, insight, and intuition. Beware the dangers of inattention, impatience, and hubris.
Often, the reward at the end of the journey is not what you expect. Be open to the possibility of finding treasure in unexpected places and in uncommon forms.
Weigh each new opportunity against your current objective, then decide what to do based on what you value most.
How you think about your situation matters. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that the implicit and explicit metaphors we use to think about day-to-day situations have an enormous effect on how we approach the world. Exploring different metaphors can highlight potential errors or biases, and produce useful approaches and insights.