Heavy Meddle: I'm At A Professional Crossroads. Which Path Should I Choose?

Measuring risk against security. (Chris Potter/flickr)
Measuring risk against security. (Chris Potter/flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.



Dear Steve,

I’m a recent college graduate and currently have two part-time jobs that I enjoy and that pay enough for me to get by. I have the option to take a full-time job that pays better and is more in line with what I want to do in the future, but it's only guaranteed for three months, with the possibility of a one- or two-year extension, depending on grant funding.

I’m afraid that if I take the new full-time position and the grant funding doesn't come through, I'll be without any job at all and unable to find a situation as good as the one I'm in right now. So should I take the risk in hopes of bettering my paycheck and my career, or should I stick with the part-time gigs, for the time being? It's just hard to know in these tough economic times.


Indecisive Worker


Dear Indecisive,

My big dream when I graduated from college was to be a newspaper reporter. This was back in the 1980s, before the digital age. I applied to virtually every paper in New England, and, when none of them saw fit to hire me, I took a job at the El Paso Times as a features reporter. I moved my entire life to El Paso — which, it turns out, is on the Western edge of Texas, right next to Mexico. It was a strange place, totally foreign to me, and a lot more intense than anything I’d experienced before.

A week later, I got a call from an editor at the Quincy Patriot-Ledger offering me a job. Working at the Patriot-Ledger, or a paper like the Patriot-Ledger, had always been the goal. It offered a clear path to what I took to be my intended destiny, working at a big daily like the Boston Globe or The New York Times.

I gave the matter a good deal of thought and decided to take the job in Quincy, which I considered the safe path. My bosses in El Paso were understandably furious when I broke the news. Then something curious happened: I had what amounts to a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I spent a lot of time weeping in confusion.

At a certain point, it became clear that I was simply unprepared, emotionally and psychologically, to take this new job. So I told my editors in El Paso that I’d changed my mind, and they kindly allowed me to un-quit. I called my editor in Quincy and explained to him that I didn’t want the job, after all. Once he was done dressing me down, I felt a great rush of relief.

I thought about this strange episode when I read your letter. Not that you’re on the brink of a nervous breakdown, Indecisive. You seem pretty poised about the nature of your decision. But you’re still in one of those deciding moments, where you have to measure risk against security.

I have a bit of bad news about this, and two pieces of advice.

First, the bad news: I have no idea what you should do.

...we tend to think of life decisions in a binary way. You either make the 'right' decision or the 'wrong' decision. This is nonsense.

I have no idea because I’m not you. I don’t know your temperament. I don’t know your tolerance for risk. I don’t know your economic circumstances, whether you’ve got $100,000 in college loan debt or $100,000 socked away in the bank.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice: Conduct a brutally honest self-inventory of your circumstances. Ask yourself these questions: How do I feel about risk versus security? How calamitous would it be to take this full-time job and wind up unemployed? How long would it take me to get another job, or set of jobs, that helped me advance my career? How long might I have to wait for another opportunity like this to arise? And so on.

One thing to remember, Indecisive, is that youth does provide a certain insulation when it comes to risk. I am assuming that, as a recent college grad, you likely don’t have a family quite yet, and thus no spouse or children or mortgage. This might be the time in your life when it’s easiest to take a chance.

I hope these questions help clarify the decision you have to make. But the truth is that I did the same thing all those years ago in El Paso, and I still made a decision that caused me to have a meltdown. Your logical, conscious mind can only know so much. At certain moments, your gut steps in and takes over. That’s what happened to me. Some unconscious part of me rose up, in the form of anxiety, and pushed me toward the stranger, riskier path that working in El Paso represented.

In fact, I could have taken either job and made a happy life.

I don’t mean to minimize the decision you have to make. But we tend to think of life decisions in a binary way. You either make the “right” decision or the “wrong” decision. This is nonsense. It’s just a way that we try to reassure ourselves in the face of doubt. It’s not that our decisions don’t matter. But they matter far less than what we do with those decisions, how hard we work in the aftermath.

Whatever call you make here matters much less than the passion and dedication that you bring to the development of your career. That’s what will serve you in the long run, both in your professional and creative aspirations and relationships.

I wish you every bit of good luck!


Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.


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