A professor I’m profiling for a class told me something interesting recently.
We were talking about how, one day toward the middle of his career, he decided he wanted to sail around the Pacific Ocean. He saved enough money, bought a sailboat, quit his job as associate news director of a pretty big news organization and set sail for the next three years with his wife and child.
When I asked him how he’d gotten the courage to do something like that, he replied, “I just did it. Most of life is just deciding to do it; there’s nothing to it but to do it.”
I think most of us would agree with him. Doing it is all it takes, yet somehow it’s not that easy. In fact, most of the time doing it feels so impossibly unrealistic that we let desires like these — which might even be as small as deciding to dye our hair — float to the back of our minds to settle in as a faint yearning.
But why? Why is it so terrifying to take that leap?
With big decisions like quitting your job, money can play a major role when there’s a family to support. But there are ways around that, such as saving up or holding a job on the side.
What really holds us back, when it comes down to it, is self-doubt. When most of us even come close to making a decision that deviates from what we perceive as expected of us or how we see ourselves, a thousand tiny claws of doubt quickly tear that resolve to pieces.
“I’m not that kind of person,” we think. “I could never do something like that; it’s just not me,” we say, and then continue to idolize the person who did take the leap.
But don’t we decide who we are? Even if we’ve acted a certain way or followed a certain path our whole lives, can’t we just as easily change that behavior or those decisions to guide our identity down a different path? Can’t we just as easily be that person whose life and decisions we keep finding ourselves envying?
The answer is absolutely. Especially now, when we are probably more free than we’ll ever be again, conquering that self-doubt is crucial.
University of Richmond students tend to have this ideal future in mind that consists of four years in business school interspersed with some impressive internships, a job at a big firm right out of college, and then marriage followed by a cozy house and two and a half kids. And yes, there’s something to be said about security, and putting that expensive college education to good use, but is this trajectory truly the one that every student wants? Or do we funnel ourselves into that life out of fear of doing anything else, and doubt that our own buried desires could actually lead us down the right path?
I say there’s nothing wrong with turning down that offer from Deloitte to go waitress in that tiny town in Spain you fell in love with abroad, if those are the pictures you keep finding yourself scrolling through wistfully. Or quit after your first year on the job to become an English teacher if you find yourself looking forward to going home to read a book every other second of the day. If you can support yourself and you’re doing what you want, that education was worth every cent.
Right now, dye your hair pink even if you have never worn anything crazier than a rainbow T-shirt. Go abroad to Morocco instead of London; drop the debate team if you are only on it because your parents think it would look good on your résumé and try out for the improv club, even if you are painfully shy or your friends think it’s weird.
Take that risk, because at the end of the day, the only person you’re hurting or embarrassing by never doing it is you. You’re the only one capable of scooping yourself out of the stream that everyone else is headed down — the stream you’re only floating in because it seems like the right thing to do.
Who knows, maybe one day you could be that professor telling his student about his adventures in a 32-foot sailboat on the Pacific Ocean.