How to make a tough career decision, when you're an anxiety-riddled lunatic?
April 26, 2007 6:58 PM   Subscribe

Decision-making strategies filter: How to make a hard decision regarding art, uncertainty, academia, a move and major fears?

The story: I’m an artist currently making my living with design work and small teaching gigs. I’ve been offered a relatively decent academic job in a place my partner and I don’t want to live. We love where we’re living now, I’m fairly happy with my job(s), and have a decent amount of time to pursue my artwork.

The complications: My partner is quitting her job—the one that has given us a steady and reliable source of income while I’ve been freelancing. No matter what we decide to do, she will be quitting to try and make a go of her own creative career, which has been steadily gaining momentum in her spare time. The ideal for her would be for us to do this together, to combine our creative/art/design pursuits into a joint business venture, and go for it. And when I think about how I ideally want to spend my days, making things with her is a no-brainer.

However, facing the prospect of making a go of our art careers has me almost paralyzed with fear. In the typical situation, I would be telling you that my big fear is moving across country for this job, and you would be telling me to face my fears and do it. And while the idea of a move to a disappointing place coupled with a potentially time-and-creativity-sucking job in academia is indeed cripplingly fearsome, the idea of staying here, giving up our safety nets, attempting to live as artists--and failing--is HORRIFYING. Basically, my worst fear: confirmation that we don’t have what it takes.

My ultimate goal in life is to make art, every second of every day. But I have, of course, been taught to believe that that’s basically impossible, and that an academic job is fraught with complications but ultimately necessary. And I do love teaching, but all of the teachers I know are barely able to pursue their artwork anymore.

We’re still young, we have energy, love, boundless creativity and few responsibilities (no house, no kids), a healthy cushion saved up, and my partner will continue to receive her salary for three months after quitting. If we stay and it doesn’t work out, we won’t starve. There are many temp jobs we’re qualified for, people willing to take us in, and there’s always next year’s (equally tempestuous and uncertain) academic job market. It would be our dream to stay in the city we adore, with our friends and professional connections, and be able to live off of our creative work together. That’s the daily life I get most excited about. And yet the prospect of really going for it has me paralyzed with fear, instinctively looking for the first salaried position I can find. Do we take the flat road, the reasonably safe and secure choice, or do we jump off the freaking cliff? I realize this is a decision that only we can make, and that I’ve left things too vague to solicit good advice…

My actual question, friends, is what strategies are there for making this decision in an intelligent way, without becoming blinded by anxiety? How do we weigh all the different variables? What aspects of the decision are forgetting to even consider? And once a decision has been made, how do I move forward without second-guessing, or succumbing to fear or regret?
posted by EL-O-ESS to Work & Money (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're already making the decision in an intelligent way. The only way to not be blinded by the anxiety is to acknowledge it and realize it's going to be there. This is a big, tough decision, and anxiety is a perfectly natural reaction.

I don't really think one weighs variables, unless you're comparing mortgages. In the end, you either go with your hopes or your fears.

It's easy for me to sit here and say this, but I'd suggest hope. When I was younger I assumed that creativity was for fun, and work was for money. As it turns out, I was wrong, and if I had realized that a decade earlier I would have been able to live the creative life that much sooner. It sounds like you're in a great place to give it a shot, so I'd urge you to avoid premature responsibility.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 7:11 PM on April 26, 2007

Wow...that was a lot to take in. As a former professor who left her job to pursue other loves (because teaching is definitely a love of mine), let me recommend that you ask yourself this: Ten years from now, or hell, even five years from now, will you regret that you didn't try to pursue your artwork? You can always go back to your career. Be poor, carefree and explore your creativity.

Remember this, it's only life afterall.
posted by AlliKat75 at 7:15 PM on April 26, 2007

The biggest variable you need to consider is this:

If we stay and it doesn’t work out, we won’t starve.

You have few responsibilities, so go for it. You have a safety net, momentum, drive, and youth on your side. That sounds like the perfect recipe to me. The more variables you consider the more paralyzed by fear you'll become until you've been stuck at a job you loathe for eight years (he said, speaking from experience).

Nothing in life is guaranteed. Do you really envision a better set of circumstances arising?
posted by lekvar at 7:16 PM on April 26, 2007

This is the only really relevant issue:

Basically, my worst fear: confirmation that we don’t have what it takes.

Face this fear or surrender your dreams forever. Let me reiterate this: this fear is the only reason you are even considering this obviously wrong job and move. If you WILL NOT go through this fear you CAN NOT realize your dream. There is NO path to your dream that does not go through this fear. It will NEVER get easier to take chances. There is nothing else to consider.
posted by nanojath at 7:26 PM on April 26, 2007 [5 favorites]

For an academic approach to hard decision making (that helps even if you don't see it all the way through), try MAUT. Here are some sites from a google search I just did.

I also like this book. It's about companies, but it works.
posted by Eringatang at 7:52 PM on April 26, 2007

As an ambivalent academic, I have to say: don't take
- an academic job you're not sure you want,
- in a place you know you don't like,
- far from your creative community and an energizing place you know well.
Just don't. If you need to, you can make that compromise in a few more years; don't make it now. Academic jobs are huge, huge time sinks and energy sucks, which are really only worth it if you loooove teaching or are hyper-disciplined about continuing to pursue your own research/artmaking even while being super busy.

Remember that to succeed at art, you don't have to be the best artist, you just have to be able to make a living. And you are smart enough to figure out how to do that with a non time-suck job if the supporting-yourself-only-through-art doesn't work -- enabling you to stay in the city you love and continue to make art in your spare time (which you will have, if you avoid the time-suck job of academia).
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:51 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You write as if failure at the riskier choice means your life is over. There will be steady jobs and dull places to go to in the future. Your decision framework is skewed.
posted by spitbull at 8:52 PM on April 26, 2007

Here's a problem I sense, admittedly on the limited information you proffer in your post, EL-O-ESS:

Your mention "fear" and "cushion" and "safety" and wanting to "live off of our creative work" and wonder if this is a goal that may be snuffed out by an unsupporting world. Essentially, as I read you, you want to be another Thomas Kinkade. But there is not one whiff of the terrible internal drive that made Van Gogh paint starry nights, again and again, or a drop of sweat which was Michelango's cost for every flake of marble off the Pieta.

You cannot plan madness or passion or the urgency of creativity so humanly insistent, it demands attention. And in the face of the lack of such, you'd be wise to do as you've been taught, as you are asked to teach, and take the day job.
posted by paulsc at 9:17 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

If I had my life over again I would always go for the "completely terrifies me" option. (Except of course for the actually fatal stuff.) A few years ago I started heading face first into the things I feared most and I've never been happier or more successful.

On the other side of your fears are your dreams. On the other side of safety is mediocrity.

Do you want a mediocre life or the one of your dreams?

Remember that personal success is something that no one else will give you. You have to reach out and take it. And you will not get it staying in your comfort zone.
posted by Ookseer at 10:52 PM on April 26, 2007 [5 favorites]

Your worst fear is really "confirmation that we don’t have what it takes"? That's really nothing to be afraid of. If you don't have what it takes, you'll pick up the pieces, figure out where you went wrong, and make a new plan from there. That's the way life generally works.

Although I think paulsc is being far too harsh, he does have a point -- others have risked absolutely everything to create (or even had no choice), and you're afraid of risking nothing more than a wounded ego.

I'd also venture that, if you take the risk, whatever happens (even if it ends in "failure") will benefit your art in the long run.
posted by treepour at 12:38 AM on April 27, 2007

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