What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

It’s a cliché, but then, how do you think a cliché becomes a cliché? When people are trying to give you advice about your choices, they ask you, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The implication being that you should be brave and bold, and go for your dreams.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always that simple. For every triumphant anecdote about how brave decisions led to extraordinary results, there are probably dozens or hundreds of people whose choices turned out to be reckless and led to huge difficulties. My issue is that I just don’t know which of those crossroads I’m standing in.

I mentioned recently that I had some disappointing news at work: a full-time job opportunity working with the Diversity team didn’t work out, and some opportunities I’d been exploring on another team would require a step down in career level in order to get my foot in the door. I even discussed a few different career options that were on my mind. But frankly, they were all fairly safe options.

Beyond those options, there are the extreme possibilities, which brings me back to the cliché question that I referenced earlier. If I wasn’t afraid of being unemployed, of being unable to find work, of being unable to pay my bills, what would I do? If I had blind faith that it would work out as long as I dove head-first into my dreams, what choice would I make? If there were no risks but only opportunities, which path would I choose?

In an ideal world, I would love to really focus on my scholarly endeavors. I’d embrace this Ph.D. program and find a way to accelerate the classwork portion of it, so that I could finish my doctorate sooner and see where that takes me. Hell, I’d look at other academic programs and really expand my horizons, with complementary studies in industrial/organizational psychology. Barring a deeper focus on my own academics, I’d quit my job and be an adjunct professor teaching college classes while I finish my Ph.D. (A number of my classmates do it, which makes me envious until I consider how poorly adjunct professors are often compensated and treated.)

Speaking of my Ph.D. classmates, I often hear them talking about the great work that many of them are doing in non-profits. I think of friends who work for fantastic non-profit organizations that I deeply respect and admire, and I imagine how much I would love to devote my profession to making the world (or the workplace, or the country, or whatever) a better place. I think about the feeling of satisfaction that comes from making a difference, and I get wistful.

And the most extreme example: an HR colleague from another company expressed his frustration to me today about his current job, and I jokingly said that we should just start up our own consultant group. He’d focus on staffing consultancy, and I would focus on diversity and engagement consultancy. I was kidding — I don’t have the money to begin a start-up and certainly not to survive the lean years as a beginning unknown consultant — but it certainly did give me a moment of “if only” pause.

What would I do if I wasn’t afraid? Something different, and something meaningful. But the truth is that I am afraid, and I have too many obligations to be able to take those kind of risks. I need to focus on doing the best that I can in reasonably safe circumstances, and try to make incremental progress towards my long-term goals.

But hey, a guy can dream.

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