Monday, May 31, 2010

The safe choice

The other day I was putting gas in my car when a man got out of a large truck and headed into the convenience store. What struck me right away was his t-shirt. I've seen some pretty unusual t-shirt messages, but for some reason this one caught me off guard. In fact, it's still nagging at me several days later. It was a simple shirt with no artwork...just block letters across the back. The t-shirt read, "Take the safe choice."

It's a perfectly benign message at first glance. I'm sure there are plenty of times in life when selecting the safer of two options makes sense. For example, it's typically better to view the lions at the zoo from OUTSIDE the cages rather checking them out up close. Sure, safety is a good thing. Still, it was an odd enough message that it made me step back and think about the choices I've made over the years. Would I have been better or worse off in the long run if I had let this advice guide my decision-making? What if at every fork in the road, I carefully selected based purely on safety? What if I had never taken a risk?

It would have been safer for me to stay in my first job - teaching eighth grade English. After all, I was tenured (doesn't get much safer than that) and I loved working with kids that age. Still, when I had the opportunity to move to teaching at the community college, I said, "why not?". It was a great decision, although definitely not the safe one. Here's another time that comes to mind - it would probably have been safer for me to wait until I was older and more established in my career rather than getting married at twenty years old. After all, we were very young and the experts probably would have told us to take a more cautious route. But, thirty-eight years later my husband and I are still going strong and we have a lifetime of shared many ways, we grew up together. I wouldn't trade that for anything, even though it was no doubt not the safe choice at the time. I think about any number of "unsafe" choices I've made - from two trips to Africa (could have caught malaria, after all) to starting a doctoral program at 53 years old (why go through all that in your fifties?) to leaving a "safe" job in Syracuse at a place I had worked for 27 years to move to Canandaigua and become president of FLCC.

I never really thought of myself as much of a risk-taker, and I'm sure there were times when I took a risk and it didn't work out so well. Right now, though, I can't think of even one time when that happened. It seems to me that when making life choices, the #1 criterion shouldn't be which way feels safe. I've had much better luck by taking the route that excites me and just feels right.

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