Am I too proud?
January 18, 2006 11:04 AM   Subscribe

How do you balance the risks you take with your career with the risk that you will be unsatisfied because you didn't take enough risk? (Further use of the work "risk" inside)

I think I will find the line of work I'm aiming for fairly interesting (certainly a large improvement over what I was doing before graduate school), financially good enough, and it will give me reasonable flexibility (albeit within a limited geographical area). And it may open some interesting doors I've yet to even know about. I expect it to be good, maybe even great, but not "the absolute best".

I have this sneaking suspicion that I will be unsatisfied, because I'm not "chasing after a dream."

At some point there's a compromise, no? I mean, sure, I'd like to be a freelance writer, or a Hollywood film director, or a tenured professor at Harvard, or if I had better undergrad marks, and any science background whatsoever, maybe try for medical school. But at some point I have to admit I'm uncomfortable with the level of risk that these options would involve. And I do think there's a lot of satisfaction to be had in the area I'm heading.

I guess my question is, how do I let those things I think of as "pipe dreams" pass, and NOT feel like I'm chickening out of life? Has anyone faced that question "what would you do if you weren't afraid?" and accepted that part of the fear is just keeping them from being reckless?
posted by shucks to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"good judgment" is famously difficult to define. I think in the long run, (post-adolescent) humans tend to be more timid rather than more reckless, and so we tend to focus the conversation on balancing out further toward taking risk, being brave, overcoming fear etc. But the opposite extreme is no good either - complete fearlessness is self-delusion, and though occasionally self-delusion helps people achieve something that a more reflective person might have given up on, it is hardly a trait to aspire to.

but you have to determine your own boundaries. What's the worst that will happen if you take this particular risk? Is that an outcome you could accept? What's the worst if you stick with what you have? And what's the best in each case? And realistically, what sort of odds are we talking about? And is it at all possible to combine, i.e, to write the screenplay on weekends etc, or are you the kind of person who needs to go all out (or is the job too taxing etc). Giving serious consideration to these questions is important, I think.

I went back to school to work toward an academic career despite the odds not being fantastic, because I realized I would be no less happy as an academic nobody, an adjunct/ freelancer, than I was working in an office, even if I kept getting promoted. At least in academia I can daydream that something I write will eventually be insightful to someone, even if I'm never tenured at harvard. I was never going to feel that way about the flash adverts I was making for a living before grad school. To me, this was enough to severely reduce my income and do something a little self-indulgent...
posted by mdn at 11:27 AM on January 18, 2006

How old are you? I'd urge you to take the risks now, if you're young and unfettered, and if they fail, you go back and start over in something you consider more secure.

I came out of college torn between teaching and journalism. I viewed journalism as more of a dream, teaching as more secure and safe. I decided to take a step at a time towards journalism and see how far I could get. Now, 15 years into a journalism career, I see that it wasn't as risk-filled as I thought, and I know I'd be frustrated on a regular basis had I not pursued it.

Also, a career as a freelance writer is as flexible as you want it to be. There's no reason not to pursue that while you pull down a paycheck from a regular job. Heck, all but maybe one of the freelancers who write for me at MSNBC are fully employed in other pursuits.
posted by GaelFC at 11:32 AM on January 18, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry, I forgot to mention my age. I'm 28.
posted by shucks at 11:35 AM on January 18, 2006

This is a great question and I'm glad you asked it. I'm struggling with very similar feelings myself, and here are some thoughts I've had.

(1) It's easy, especially in a high-achieving academic environment, to get into the mindset that your career is going to be where you focus most of your energies and get the most fulfillment out of life. Your reason for being, if you will. For some people this is what happens, but not everyone. What is your biggest pleasure in life? Maybe it's playing a sport, the arts, relationships, or raising a family. Just because your career doesn't necessarily make you say "This is it, this is why I was put on this earth!" doesn't mean you aren't living a full life or that you are sacrificing something.

(2) I think that not having a dream to chase, as you put it, can really just mean you're not sure where you want to be in ten years or whatever, and that's totally normal and fine. Is your issue really about the risks involved with going after other things? You say "Sure, I'd like to be...", but the thing about passionate ambitions tends to be that you pursue them singlemindedly, whatever the risks are. It sounds like what's really troubling you (and forgive me if I'm projecting here) is that you haven't identified any such burning passion. So what, you don't necessarily know what you want out of life yet. The dream you can chase is to figure that out along the way.

(3) I don't know what your job is, and you didn't mention this, but one thing that hangs me up is social conscience, the idea that your work doesn't contribute enough directly to society. If this is the case, I suggest finding a place that means something to you where you can volunteer. It can really help to balance whatever you feel about the trajectory of your work.

I've by no means come to resolution on this question either, so these are just things to think about. I'm eager to read the other responses.
posted by zadermatermorts at 11:39 AM on January 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I can tell you how I balanced things, and this may/may not work for you, depending on the specifics of your dream.

My dream was to be a theatre director, but I pretty much only want to direct classics (i.e. Shakespeare), and I only want to direct them in a straight-forward way (i.e. I don't want to set 'Hamlet' on the moon).

In New York City, where I live, I could NEVER get such a job full time. Sure, there are working directors here (a few), but no working classical directors. And when classics are done, they are usually done with some sort of post-modern spin, which I hate.

One thing I am TOTALLY unwilling to compromise: the specifics of the dream. In other words, I would rather not direct at all than direct Neil Simon comedies. (Sorry, I know this sounds snobbish, but it is an honest statement about what interests me. I have no feeling of superiority of people who like Simon. I just happen not to.)

So I want to do something that no one will pay me for, and I need money to live. So -- duh -- I have a day job. But unlike most people I know with day jobs, I don't consider mine temporary. I'm not "just waiting tables until I make it big." Everyone I know who does this either DOES make it big (but that's a small percent) or winds up chucking the whole thing. After a couple of years, they get so sick of the horrible job -- and so sick of waiting to be "discovered" -- that they just move away or go back to school and learn something else.

I consider my day job to be permanent. I will do it until I retire. (Of course, if I am discovered, that will be great, but I'm not looking for it to happen or working for it to happen.) Since I know I'll be doing it for decades, I have worked very hard to make it something I LIKE doing.

I HATE the fact that throughout art schools, this "romantic" idea of "the starving artists who waits tables" gets propagated. Instead, all these schools should be pushing artists to learn -- in addition to their craft -- a bankable skill. In addition to sculpture, get a certificate in massage therapy or whatever. Many artists call this "selling out" and say things like, "Yeah, and in a few years you'll quit sculpting and just become a massage therapist full time." I disagree (though, of course, this COULD happen). I do my day job to SUPPORT my dream. If I didn't have my day job, I would give up my dream.

I don't associate my dream with making money.

So I've learned a lot of really cool computer stuff, and I spend my days teaching graphic design, animation, film editing, etc. At night, I direct Shakespeare plays.

Okay, the trade-off for me: I don't have kids. That's the one problem. There aren't enough hours in the day for two full-time jobs (one that pays) and a family. That isn't an issue for me, because I wasn't planning to have kids. (I am happily married.) But it could be a big issue for some people.
posted by grumblebee at 11:45 AM on January 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Given this quandary, you might find Po Bryson's What Do I Want to Do With My Life? an interesting read.
posted by WCityMike at 12:10 PM on January 18, 2006

Stability/lack of risk in one area gives you a lot more leverage to take risks outside of that (money to take classes for fun, flexibility to do volunteering). I've heard it defensively described as "I don't live to work I work to live". a way of describing the issue that helped me was the the sex & cash theory post

I'm a horrible at dream-lurking. I have to think about the amt of time/work required to become an expert in X, and deglamorize the source of my distractions to stop.
(wait a second..I'm good at Y, because.. hmm, am I willing to live and breathe X for 10 yrs? .. freelance writing.. would I write advertisements for toothpaste?). how doex X make moneythat job makes money..

the most difficult for me... learn to cull my do/learn-next list.
posted by ejaned8 at 12:31 PM on January 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

There's no right answer.

If you become a successful director in ten years, you'll almost certainly spend the rest of your life believing that the sacrifices were the smartest thing you ever did.

The real question is what you'll think of yourself if you fail. If you can embrace the failure as a brave and interesting way to lead a life, then just go and try something else... then go for it!

Most people can't handle that sort of massive let-down, so they lead more mainstream lives. That's not bad, it simply is.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:14 PM on January 18, 2006

Many Many Years here and not many words -- Do what makes you happy and you enjoy -- take some risks and if the outcome is good, continue to take risks. If the outcome is not good, back off and learn to be content.
posted by orlin at 2:50 PM on January 18, 2006

Why are you viewing this job or career as the final job of your entire life? Why can't you do your new particular job for a few years, and then reassess whether you would like to head in another direction?

Many people that are close to your age have had a series of jobs, not just one job or one career.

Also, you can try a few of the jobs and then ask, 'Do I really want this?' i.e., you may not be able to get a tenure track job at Harvard now, but try for a visiting prof position at a small unknown school. Then ask - do you enjoy the job? If you are really unhappy, that probably answers that question about Harvard - why continue that route? If you are offered a tenure track job, look at all the parameters and realize you will still be miserable/or you truly do not want that - that will also answer your question.

Honestly, if I were in your shoes, I would try the new job for a few years and then reassess. You can do any of things at later point, and you may have further drive if you find you dislike that new job, need creativity, etc.

Also, you have nothing to lose by applying for a job(s) or applying for medical school. You will probably learn something about yourself in the process - you can get in, or you may not want that after all.

Best of luck.
posted by Wolfster at 4:34 PM on January 18, 2006

What's a risk? If you quit grad school now and decided to become, say, a professional musician, that would be risky. And stupid, and self-destructive (not romantic or spontaneous).

If you finish school, work for a few years, and save up some money, you can take six months or a year off and launch yourself fully into your dream of professional musicianship. If it succeeds, great! If it fails, you go back to work for a while and try it again.

I guess my point is it's a false dichotomy. You can have it all. Just be smart about it.
posted by Hildago at 8:13 AM on January 19, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you for all the comments. I can't mark a best answer because they are all insightful in their own way.
posted by shucks at 9:08 AM on January 19, 2006

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