One year ago I left a full-time job to rejoin the ranks of the self-employed. While the job provided wonderfully steady pay and health insurance, it was in no way related to my vocation as a writer, teacher and creativity coach—things I’d been doing “on the side.” And so I took the leap, not knowing exactly how, or whether, things would work out.
It’s not the first time I’ve done that.
At age 18 I left cozy Cape Cod for the streets of Philadelphia to join the freshman class at the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the Ivy League cred that sold me on Penn so much as the chance to explore urban living for the first time in my life. I went to jazz clubs and nightclubs, wandered the Italian markets and Chinatown, ran up the steps of Philly’s art museum like Rocky and walked the downtown streets with glee. I felt at home in the city, and the feeling was exponentially magnified when I chose to spend my junior year in London, an experience otherwise known as The Year I Found Myself.
After college I followed some leads to New York, where I spent ten years in public broadcasting and had lots of daring adventures (not all of which are fit to print). When my work as a radio journalist ceased to inspire me, I left it to live in a yoga center nestled amid green hills. Two years later I missed the buzz of city life and headed to Boston to try and make a living as a yoga teacher. I had no jobs lined up, but I had a bed in my friend’s guest room.
The point is that I’ve taken many risks in my life to follow my desires in the direction of what promised greater fulfillment. At times I was moving toward something concrete, but more often I was simply moving away from what no longer fit. Both are valuable practices, but it’s the latter that really builds risk muscles when we dare to step off metaphorical cliffs and hope that a net will appear.
I once had a powerful dream about this. It found me making my way across tall rock formations in the Grand Canyon (I’m not even a hiker…but you know how dreams are). At one point in the journey I came to a place where the next rock was too far away for a safe leap and I froze in fear. Suddenly, part of me split off and jumped, falling hundreds of feet to the ground—splat. As I peered down in horror, I saw a crowd gather around my fallen self. To everyone’s amazement, she/I got up, brushed off the dirt, and walked away, unbroken. Up above, the frightened but emboldened me shakily stepped forward into the air. Immediately, a kind of magic carpet appeared under my feet and transported me to the next rock, Aladdin-style. And so it went, all across the canyon.
This vivid dream came to me twelve years ago during a time of great change and uncertainty. It told me: 1) You may fall/fail in front of other people, but it won’t kill you, and 2) When you take a step forward despite your fears, help arrives. I like to tell my creative recovery students that God/Spirit/Higher Power/Universe is always ready to assist us, but we have to take the first empowering action. As the saying goes: Pray to catch the bus, and run as fast as you can.
Each time I exercise my risk muscles I grow in courage, faith and self-confidence, which are the real rewards of risk-taking. And let me be sure to say that it’s rarely comfortable to embrace the unknown. Most of my riskier life changes were accompanied by many wide-eyed “What the hell am I doing?!” moments at 3 a.m. By the light of day, if my inner convictions were stronger than my fear and anxiety, I forged ahead.
When I asked others about risks that paid off for them, I heard stories about daring to leave unhappy jobs and marriages, taking a chance on love, and “following my own path against the odds, which in some ways proved my worth, at least to myself.” A former student who’s moved around the country to follow her dreams says, “It seems that the more something scares you, and the higher your resistance, the more you should actually take the plunge.” Another writes that, “Taking a recent trip to Europe meant emptying my bank account at a time when my work hours were being cut in half, but that trip broke me out of what I later recognized as depression and woke me up to possibilities again.”
A friend of mine echoes my own aspirations when she says, “The greatest risk that I take on a daily basis is being true to myself. We live in a culture that feels better poking, pushing, and prodding people into conformity. By being true to me I cultivate positive resources for a calmer and more joyful life experience."
It’s been a year since I had a full-time job, and I’m still paying my bills (with, I must add, some help and health insurance from my husband's job). I’m also much happier, and even more daring. In the end, I believe that the things we don’t try to do may haunt us more than our so-called mistakes and failures. As the poet Mary Oliver suggests, we have just one “wild and precious life” to live, and it’s not a dress rehearsal.
So go ahead, take a risk and do something that scares you a little today. I’ll be rooting for you, from somewhere over the Grand Canyon.