Risk Is Healthy, Risk Is Fine, Risk Is Natural

by Megan Reynolds

I am a person who is risk averse by nature. I enjoy routine and structure. I love a plan. Nothing pleases me more than making a to-do list, looking over that list and crossing off the items with a thick, clean line. I am generally set in my ways. I cross the street at the same place every morning on my way to the train, even though some may argue it’s more efficient to cross with the lights. I have a Sunday routine that rarely changes. The quiet order that these actions impose on my life pleases me, it’s my way of finding the tiny pockets of control in unknown quantities. Risk scares me because I view the squirmy unknown as a thing to be tamed, to be tamped down and placed neatly in a box. If I do the same things every single day, in the same way, the outcome is most likely something that I can predict.

To an extent, any decision that drastically deviates from the norm is weighed with great consideration, the pros and cons debated in various Gchats and text messages. Sometimes it really does take a village, and I’ll use that village to my benefit. I like to have a full picture before I make a decision, to see the possible outcomes on a whiteboard in front of me, each probable result spiralling off into its own, unique scenario; If I don’t go grocery shopping on Sunday, here is how much money I will spend on Chipotle and sandwiches, and this is how it will affect my vacation. With all the outcomes predicted, this is how I make my decisions.

These situations are low-risk, hardly decisions that require much thought beyond putting on shoes and walking out my front door. These are risks I can handle, but as for my career, I generally play it safe, puttering back and forth between unsatisfying jobs, doing work because I have bills, I have rent, I have to make sure the cat doesn’t starve. So many decisions I make are based on whether or not I will have steady money, and the risk of losing that safety net terrifies me.

Two weeks ago, I got an email from a friend of a friend, hiring for a position that seemed too good to be true, a position that fell neatly in line with the career goals I had started to doodle in the margins of my work notebook during meetings. It was a position that I was uniquely qualified for, something that could be the kick in the teeth my stagnant work life needed. It was temporary and held no promise of the creature comforts of my current job: the promise of health insurance, perhaps a 401(k), a whisper of a bonus somewhere down the line. It was the complete opposite of what I was doing. It was perfect.

I walked the 10 blocks to the L train, on the phone to my father, raising my voice at every practical question he asked, panicking because I had accepted the job. Yes, this was freelance, and yes, it is less than my current salary. Yes, it is not definite. Yes, I know I need savings. Yes, I know I can’t get unemployment if this falls through. Yes, I am petrified of being college-freshmen broke if this all doesn’t work out.

I stood in Union Square on an unseasonably cold day in May on the phone to him with panic sharply rising in my voice.

“You’re freaking me out,” I said. “Now I don’t know if I made the right choice. I don’t know if this is smart. What would you do in my position?” I raised my voice to make myself heard over the chorus of Hare Krishnas in the background, banging tambourines and chanting.

“In your position, with two kids, I would stay at my job,” he said. “But you’re not me.”

A career is something that happens to you either by choice or by happenstance. One or two jobs after college in the same field is someone in their twenties chasing the dragon of higher pay, or leaving their starter job to try something else. Three to five jobs in the same field is an accidental career trajectory, and if it is a path you don’t want to be on, trying another one is absolutely terrifying. If you’re doing something that makes you feel competent, capable and confident at least 65 percent of the time, you’re in a great place. Stay in that place, or leave that place, it’s up to you. Know that the rest of the time when you find yourself staring at your inbox or planning your lunch salad in excruciating detail to avoid doing that one thing is what makes work work.

You take risks because life is nothing more than a series of tiny decisions, big and small, with an outcome that is completely unpredictable. Get the sushi from the hot lunch counter, and you can trust that it probably won’t give you food poisoning, but you don’t know for sure. Take the opportunity presented to you knowing that it might not be the right choice, but assure yourself that there is no right choice. The other half of this puzzle is living with your own mind if you don’t. The cloud of rampant speculation on what might have been will break down your mental fortitude, churning itself into self-doubt, as sure as the sky is blue. This time, I refuse to let that happen. I took the risk.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.