Earlier this week I wrote a post headlined “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” about not letting fear limit our decisions.
I’ve been reflecting on major forks in the road in my life and how often I have self limited by taking the conservative path — what my husband, John, calls being a good girl. If a decision could yield a payoff between 1 and 10, my fear of a 2 made me choose the nice safe 5 instead of taking a chance on a 9.
- I did a study abroad in London when I was 21 and loved it there. Loved it. When the time came to go home, a boy I’d been dating said he’d talked to his roommates and they agreed I could stay there rent free until I could find a job and a place of my own. But I was too intimidated by not knowing how you get a work visa or what I’d even do there, fresh out of college and with no professional experience, so I flew home to the Bush recession instead.
- My ex-fiance and I had a big fight one night and I stormed off to look through the classified ads so I could move out into my own apartment. We argued too much and I knew it was the right thing to do, but my fear of being alone, of having to pay rent solo, that maybe I’d never do better than him, made me put away the classifieds and go home. So he could cheat on me and dump me a year or so later.
- After graduating with my MBA, my job search was taking longer than I’d hoped. I was getting discouraged, and I prayed for a sign about what I was supposed to do. While on a European vacation, I was reading Tom Wolfe’s latest book when Tom Wolfe himself was on our flight. We chatted with him, found out he was giving a talk that night and we went. He passionately advocated that journalists make great novelists because we understand how to research experiences outside our own, we’re trained to listen to dialogue and transcribe quotes, we know how to get to the essence of a story. One of my favorite writers, dressed all in white, was the guardian angel telling me I’d be a great novelist, but I still didn’t finish the novel I’d started long ago, and continued to search for a corporate job.
This is not to say nothing good has come from making the safe choice — that Frank and I weren’t sometimes happy together or that I didn’t love moving to NYC for my post-MBA career. Just that I’ll never know what magic might have ensued if I’d been willing to take the risk.
By contrast, some choices I’ve made that were more impulsive, more in my heart, turned out amazing:
- That study abroad? I really knew nothing about the program when I signed up. I saw a poster on the journalism department bulletin board, which was the way we learned about things in prehistoric times before the Internet and e-mail. I mailed in the form to get an info packet, and sent off my application not knowing another soul who was going. It was the first time I’d gotten a passport, because in those pre 9/11 days, living in Michigan and going across to Canada was not *really* like going to a foreign country. The experience of living outside the country changed me in innumerable ways.
- Another travel abroad story: I had a dream after my mom died that I was supposed to take my aunt, my mom’s sister, to Rome to see the pope. My super-Catholic, Polish aunt didn’t have a passport and is terrified of flying, but she said yes anyway. It wasn’t the easiest trip I’ve ever taken but when Pope John Paul died shortly after we celebrated Easter mass at the Vatican, it felt like I’d done the right thing.
- I did almost no research into MBA programs before applying to Michigan. I’d been considering a master’s in journalism, mainly to take a little sabbatical from working, I think, when I learned Michigan had a part-time MBA program so I could keep earning my paycheck and get an advanced degree. I’m not sure why I felt I needed more education, although on some level it was a bit of competition with my ex-fiance who was going to law school, as well as just wanting more options than a life in daily newspapers. I got in, and it led me to living in New York — which I really wanted to do, though I could never fully explain why.
What’s my takeaway? That the safe path sometimes isn’t as safe as it appears — going back to Frank still led to heartbreak, and going back to the U.S. meant taking a job that paid so little I was on the poverty scale at the county health department — and sometimes the risky path isn’t so risky.