New Directions

Developing Your Wings

How many times have you done something really scary? I’m not talking about bungee jumping or cliff diving (although if you’ve done those things, they certainly count.) I’m talking about the sorts of things that make you question what you’re capable of.

Starting college, for instance. Or beginning a new career. Or becoming a parent. Scary, but not necessarily dangerous.

My life has been shaped by those kind of moments, and I really don’t think of myself as a daredevil.  In fact, I’d say I’m mostly risk-averse. You will not find me on the Grand Canyon Skywalk. But I am the sort of person who’s almost always willing to try something new. I trust my ability to grow wings when I need them.

Sometimes this means making a physical move–Mike and I moved across the country with our one-year-old daughter when we started our Ph.D. program, away from the family that had been such a help to us that first year. Sometimes it just means visiting a new city. In learning to navigate the airport, the public transportation systems, and various areas of town, I’m testing my wings a little bit. Especially if I’m traveling alone and have to rely on my own sense of direction (which, I confess, isn’t great. But that’s what GPS and old-fashioned maps are for.)

Hearing about a solo trip, friends will often say “Oh, I could never do that. I’d be too scared.” My response is usually something like “Of course you could. But if you don’t want to, there’s no point.” I say something similar when people, in getting to know me, hear about the cross-country odyssey that kicked off my graduate school career.

“How could you do that?” they ask. “Weren’t you scared?”

“Of course I was,” I tell them. “But scared doesn’t mean incapable. It doesn’t mean you can’t do something.”

More often than not, scared just means you won’t.

I like the Kurt Vonnegut quote at the top of this post because it restates something I’ve told my kids more than once: if you never do anything scary, you’ll end up living a very small life. You have to take chances. You have to trust yourself to save yourself–to develop wings in the moments when they’re absolutely necessary. Because it’s only by doing things we don’t exactly know how to do that we learn and grow.

Walking was probably scary for us, at first–we just don’t remember the fear we felt as we tried to keep our balance and avoid slamming into the floor, smacking our heads on the occasional piece of furniture on the way down. But in spite of those risks, we don’t encourage babies to keep on crawling. We encourage them to do the scary thing.

As we get older, though, most of us are not encouraged to take leaps of faith. We’re taught to be cautious. Check things out. Don’t make a move until we’re absolutely sure it’s the right thing to do.

I see this all the time, as a professor. Parents want to know what kind of career options their kid will have with a particular degree in hand. Students want to know the specific ways a particular course will benefit them “in the real world.” (Why the university is unreal, I don’t know. My job feels pretty real to me.)  Even if I could give a specific answer to these kinds of question, it wouldn’t matter. At some point, every one of those students in going to have to take a leap.

It might take the shape of a job offer–or maybe several different offers that they’ll have to sort through. More money or closer to home? Big company or small, family-owned business? There’s no right answers to those questions. You just have to take a leap and trust that your wings will appear when you need them.

And even before that student gets to a job offer, a big leap might be necessary. They might discover that an accounting major–while it does lead to a fairly specific career path–is not their passion. That’s the leap my husband had to make. After three years studying accounting, he realized that literature was the only thing he genuinely cared about. Now he’s an English professor (who takes care of our taxes every year.)

If he’d been too scared of the prospect of changing majors–of navigating all the bureaucracy involved, or extending the time and cost to graduate, or even just telling his parents that he was switching to English–he wouldn’t have made his way into a career he loves. The two of us, quite likely, would never have met.

Fear of taking those big leaps can end up costing us more than the leap itself: it can cost a whole life that we’ll never know anything about. That might be the very best reason for taking a chance and trusting yourself: there’s just no way of knowing where your wings will help you land. And there’s only one way to find out.

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