This is a story I’ve told time and time again, but I think it’s important. So, I’m going to tell it again. A few weeks after my college graduation, I flew to Beijing without knowing a word of Mandarin or a single soul in the country. It was one of those spur of the moment decisions and I calmed my fears by telling everyone, “I’ll just go for one year.” What I did not plan on was that for my first few months in Beijing, I was often lost, anxious and filled with doubts. What was I doing here? Everything is so foreign – will I ever feel comfortable here? Why are such simple tasks impossible? And lastly, the one thought that rang in my head over and over: Have I made a huge mistake?
Seven years later, I’m still living abroad. So, I guess that whole “just one year” thing really was just a ruse. The journey is well-documented in my first book, Graduates in Wonderland. The gist is that after taking that first scary plane ride to China, I now have the career that I’ve always wanted, fell in love with someone I never would have met had I not moved to Beijing, and made some of the best friends in the world during my travels and somehow ended up in London. Who knew? Not newly-graduated me.
That’s not to say that it’s been all smooth sailing, but there are a few key things that have always kept me going forward and continuing to take risks. Ready for them?
If you aren’t uncomfortable or a little nervous, you’re not growing.
During my first week at Brown University, the president at the time, Ruth Simmons, addressed the entire freshman class. She told us to use our time at college as a time to explore new fields, take up new hobbies and get out of our comfort zones: “Feel awkward. Get uncomfortable. Take risks.” I took these words to heart during my time at college, and after graduation, I thought of her words again and decided to move to Beijing. It was a scary decision to make, but it eventually led to my landing my dream job and falling in love.
It’s so tempting to just stick with what we’re good at. But comfortable is not going to be fulfilling or life-changing or inspiring. You have to go through those awkward, challenging moments or years to truly grow.
After a while, good isn’t good enough.
There will probably come a point in your life when everything is going just fine: your job isn’t perfect but it pays the bills. You have a decent group of friends in a city and you feel content. After a while, though, content won’t be good enough.
My good friend Imogen, who was a colleague of mine in Beijing, decided to leave her hometown in Australia behind and seek out an adventure in China (just like I did). She struggled to find a fulfilling, paying job in Beijing, but after a lot of hard work, things turned around for her. As she puts it, “Some people are okay with a mediocre life, as long as it pays the bills. That’s fine, but if you keep going that way, you’re never going to be challenged.”
I’d rather regret the things I have done than the things that I haven’t.
This Lucille Ball quote should come with a caveat: it does not apply to late night text messages, any decisions made while drunk, or when it comes to anything that risks bodily harm. Got it? Good. However, this is the quote I think about when I become anxious about starting a new project, when approaching a new editor, reaching out to a new contact, or traveling to a new country. I simplify it into the famous NIKE quote, “Just do it.” If it doesn’t work out, it usually makes for a great story.
Big risks have bigger pay offs.
Maybe you’re not comfortable with pushing your limits at the moment, but stretch yourself. If you’ve only ever written for yourself, send a story to a journal you love. If you’ve only ever baked in the comfort of your own kitchen, hold a supper club for close friends. You have to teach yourself to take risks, and the more you do it, the easier it will be to make those big, life-changing leaps.
Failure teaches you so much
What’s the worst that can happen if you go after your dream job and fail? You’ll have learned something valuable. The key is to find out what went wrong – ask your boss or your interviewer what you could have done better. Consult your peers and study the habits of your heroes.
With every risk, no matter how small, you’re moving towards the person you want to be. So, go for it. Feel awkward. Take risks. Life isn’t about being perfect, it’s about living. And life is all in the challenges, however paralyzing they may feel at first, that stretch you to your limits.