Sunday, April 15, 2012

What, me worry?

Image from here

This month marks four years since I officially started my latest career change to higher education. A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up with the colleague, friend and mentor who provided my first half-time appointment, immediately after our last jointly supervised Ph.D. student successfully defended his dissertation. I was expressing my gratitude to her for not laughing directly in my face back then, when I told her my goals and expectations for this new career. There is no need to go into detail now, but it's safe to say that I may have been a little optimistic in my early assessments.

She remarked that it was quite courageous what I did, leaving a successful career to start over in an entry level job I really knew nothing about.* Two thoughts immediately jumped to mind, one of which I expressed. I admitted that I had always had the tendency to pursue dreams, from leaving school to chase a job as a roadie, to spending a month exploring the country on Amtrak, to giving up an earlier sales career to return to college in my thirties. One night, when Biscuit and I were catching up with an old friend I had not seen since high school, she and her husband noted, "You are some of those people who do things, aren't you?"

The second thing that occurred to me was that I had not really been courageous, because I wasn't really afraid. Don't get me wrong, I'm afraid of plenty of things. Heights, spiders, people who think the best response to fear is firearms, the list goes on. But taking a risk to experience something new is just not something that has ever frightened me much. And a big part of the reason is ignorance, blended with denial.

Everything is harder than we think it's going to be, and every attempt at something new is almost guaranteed to fail, at least at first. If we focus on those aspects, it's easy to shy away. But struggling reminds me I am alive, and we all know failure makes us stronger. Cliché I know, but at least for me, these are some of the things that make life enjoyable. So I'm lucky that I seem to be incapable of remembering from one time to the next how difficult it is going to be, and how insecure I will feel. One of the reasons I became a roadie was to confront my fear of heights, and I had more than one occasion to regret the decision.

The whole episode got me thinking about the link between fear and ignorance, or "innocence" as it's known when it's wearing white. People are afraid of what they don't know, but the opposite is also true. I never knew I would be afraid of spiders until I saw one. And the Lion likely never would have gone with Dorothy had he known there were flying monkeys ahead.

And if I had known I wouldn't have an ending for this post, I might never have started it.

*She says things like that all the time.  She's awesome that way.


  1. “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know." - Sgt Rummy

    Altough Rummy made this famous, "unknown unknowns" is a well-worn phrase in the realm of military strategic planning.

    i believe that one of the reasons people tend to become more risk-averse as they get older is that they start to understand the concept of "unknown unknowns", and realize that something that may look easy on the surface is gonna cost twice as much and take three times as long as you might initially think...

  2. Cowardly lion/Bert Lahr. My hero, My sign. There is a lot of wisdom in what you say - never considered the fear of the experience either...for good or least I own it.