Once, in a conversation with two artist friends, I exclaimed, “You guys are so brave!”
Neither looked at me. One said directly to the other, “Are we brave, or just desperate?”
Call it a moment of innocence shattered, but since then, I have not been able to think of courage without its counterpart, fear. Given the choice, most of us would rather not embark on wild adventures. The great heroes of our mythology tend to be the reluctant ones. Look at the top movies of 2013: Bilbo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, and even Gru would all rather stay at home than take on the world. They go on their big adventures only when they must.
So what do you do with the rest of us?
As I do my end-of-year finances, I am forced to contemplate the fact that, had I stuck with my previous career as a diplomat, I’d be a homeowner with zero owed on my student loans. Instead, I’m in more debt than ever. I wasn’t escaping District 13 or a kingdom under siege. I left behind the political philosopher’s equivalent of the Shire.
Was it brave, or just desperate?
Perhaps the line between the two is as thin as my friends once implied. If this is true, however, we have to make space for other kinds of desperation. Financially, socially, and career-wise, I was doing better than I ever dreamed. The desperation in my life was spiritual.
- I was desperate to find a career where creativity was valued.
- I was desperate to work in an environment where everyone was more accountable.
- I was desperate to plug in to a culture oriented around positive solutions.
- I was desperate to gain expertise in more than just one industry.
- I was desperate to change my institution and couldn’t see it happening from inside.
Now, of course, I can see why most people are reluctant to leave even miserable jobs for the uncertainty of a new venture. I envy the self-styled reluctant heroes, who take the stage at pitch events and say things like, “I’d never have left Microsoft, but the prototype was just so successful that I had to commit to it full-time,” or, “I was fired and had to rebuild my career from the ground up, and that’s how this happened.” No, I’m one of the suspect ones: I actually want to change the world and voluntarily left a comfortable position to chase my dreams.
Perhaps I simply cannot see the inciting incident in my own story. My guess, though, is that for every Bilbo, there is a Tolkien who felt the inner urge to create him. There are adventurers like me who grew up scouring the sticker-bushes behind the backyard for hidden paths and find something lacking in the well-manicured trails of official parks. There are artists who never needed Google Glass to see reality around them augmented by history and possibility. We chose the path less traveled simply because we were too curious to stop ourselves. Our desperation comes not from the outside world, but from our very souls.
It looks a little like desperation sometimes, now that the door to my past career has shut behind me and I have no choice but to make something of my new life. But I don’t know. It feels a lot like bravery to me.