I could live my whole life in the periodicals archive of my local library, and I’d be happy. One of my favorite things to do is to find old magazines and newspapers from the cusp of important historical moments, where you can see, with the benefit of hindsight, how things were right before the big thing happened. Sure, it’s neat seeing a newspaper from November 5, 2008, with the headline “OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT,” but I get a way bigger kick out of an article from three years prior that makes mention of a “Senator Barack Obama, rising star in the Democratic party.” There’s a dramatic irony to it, like the sense of superiority you get when you read a mystery for a second time, knowing how things are going to play out, chuckling as you watch the characters cluelessly walk into danger or humiliation. And, of course, there’s a comfort in knowing how the story is going to end.
I am an anxious person. I’m talking professionally diagnosed, prescription-medicated neurotic. I fixate on worst-case scenarios, no matter how farfetched they might seem. This can turn any decision-making process into an ordeal. Whenever I have to make a life choice, I try to approach things rationally, but it’s easy to fall into my habits: I’ll try to see a situation objectively and make a pro/con list, then, no matter how many pros I’ve delineated, the handful of cons are inevitably all I can focus on.
I was 18 before I got my learner’s permit, and I let it expire before I got my actual driver’s license. I knew driving was a useful skill, and, having completed driver’s ed, I knew how to drive defensively and parallel park and everything, but what would happen when I crashed into another car and caused a 20-car pileup, as I was sure to do?! When my brain’s wheels start turning, it’s hard to make them stop: What if I fail? What if I put myself out there and people laugh at me? What if I make the wrong choice? What if I can’t undo it?
It is because of these anxieties that I have spent vast chunks of my life, especially in high school, not talking to anyone. I would pine after guys I had crushes on from a distance, because what if I asked them out and they said no? It would be way better, I decided, to keep things as they were, smiling at said crushes awkwardly as I passed them in the hall, then signing off and on again when I saw they were on MSN messenger, hoping they would notice I was online and start the first conversation. I kept journals and diaries in spades, and dreamed of being a real writer, the kind who wore black turtlenecks and knew how to pronounce Dostoyevsky, but I was terrified that if anyone were to read my writing, they’d think it sucked. These fears were based in part on the lingering sting of past rejections: When I was in eighth grade, I applied to the writing program at my city’s only arts high school and was rejected. Boys learned I had crushed on them thanks to my blabbing friends, and they turned me down without my even having approached them. These and other, similarly humiliating experiences convinced me that it just wasn’t worth it to risk rejection. I was clearly a failure, and if I put myself out there again, I would just be inviting more ridicule.
Which is why I love reading through the periodical archives. It’s reassuring to look at history through the lens of today, knowing how things have turned out, particularly things with happy endings. It’s also why I love reading memoirs by people who I know are super successful: Sure, young Mindy Kaling might have been absolutely terrified when she moved to New York to be a comedy writer, but I know that she will one day have a successful TV show with her name in the title. I read spoilers for movies all the time, especially action and horror movies, because if I know which characters are going to make it to the end credits, I won’t have to hold my breath every time they go into that abandoned building alone.
Today, I love taking risks. I wish I could point you to a dramatic moment when I stopped being so scared of everything, but the change was actually a lot more gradual and banal than that: I just got really bored with my life. There was nothing horrible about my life—it was perfectly pleasant—but around the time I was about to graduate from high school, it dawned on me that I was still waiting for my life to begin. This realization brought on a whole new wave of anxiety: I didn’t want to live in my hometown forever! I didn’t want to continue spending my Friday nights on Myspace (it was relevant, once), lurking the profiles of people who seemed like they were having more fun than me! I didn’t want to keep flipping through the pages of my favorite magazines, envying the careers of the writers in the bylines, and not doing anything about it! My new worst-case scenario, the one that I obsessed over, was about never moving forward.
I started to ask myself, Is being rejected so much worse than the alternative? As in, Is avoiding criticism really preferable to hoarding stacks of unread notebooks while I pursue a life I’m not passionate about? Is having my crush say “no thanks” worse than sitting at home alone, imagining what their mouth tastes like, and never actually talking to them?
One of the first risks I took was publishing something personal on my high school blog—ironically, it was something about how I get anxious when I think about my future. I know this might not seem super daring to a lot of you, but what’s risky for one person isn’t necessarily such a big deal to someone else. Maybe the thought of just going to a party where you don’t know everyone and starting a conversation with a stranger strikes fear in your heart, or maybe that’s nbd to you but you can’t imagine submitting an article to the school paper, or telling your best friend that something she said really hurt your feelings. Or maybe you’re one of those fearless superhero types for whom nothing short of skydiving will get your adrenaline going. But no matter what feels risky to you, the feeling is the same for everyone: You feel scared and overwhelmed, and that’s normal. We’ve all been there at some point.
So, back to the blog: After I hit “publish,” I panicked and made the whole thing private for a week, convinced that if I left it up, it would get linked to on some forum called “Teen Girl Has Stupid Feelings on Internet, Let’s All Make Fun of Her.” But I had poured my heart out in the piece, and I didn’t want it to disappear, so I eventually made it public and sent the link to a few people I trusted, asking for their honest feedback. When the response was positive enough, I felt comfortable publishing a second piece about me and my actual life. The few occasional mean comments I got were drowned out by the supportive ones, ones that said, “Thank you for writing this!” or “I didn’t know somebody else felt the same way!” Now I am a Very Professional Writer Lady who writes about all my feelings and opinions, on this ol’ site and elsewhere.
The first time I asked out a guy I liked, I was so nervous that I typed out what I was going to say, then scrapped that and drafted a new version, and then had half the Rookie staff proofread it (yes, I was an adult at the time). The guy ended up saying no, and I was embarrassed. But a few weeks later, I asked someone else out, and it was easier that time. He also said no—it took me a few times to get the results I wanted. But the point isn’t whether any of this risk-taking “works,” it’s that it works even when you are rejected or you fail, because you are getting used to taking chances, and you are learning to take rejection—an inevitability in everyone’s life—in stride. Now, I ask out crushes all the time, and it’s not a big deal. Sometimes they say yes, and then it’s Makeout City, population: us. I have also been dumped in a variety of creative ways, including, most recently, “I’m moving to Sweden.” But these rejections matter way less when they’re just drops in the ocean that I like to call Life Experience (trademark pending). The more chances you take, the less it stings when things don’t work out.
So I’m not trying to tell you to go out there and take risks because it always pays off—very often, it doesn’t, at least in the short term. There is a chance you will try something and fail. And the more times you try things, the more failures you will experience. But also, the more victories. J.K. Rowling received at least a dozen rejection letters before finding a publisher for Harry Potter, and now she could buy Laura Palmer’s house and fill it with diamonds and caviar if she wanted.
There is, of course, a difference between taking risks and being reckless. I’m not advising you to just dive headlong into dangerous situations. It is still good to be thoughtful. Pro-and-con lists have their uses. But there’s a difference between being careful and living in fear. The former will keep you alive, the latter will make you a bystander in other people’s lives. Don’t sit around waiting for the perfect moment—the perfect moment never comes. Just go for it, already!
I’ve been repeating this message to myself a lot lately, because I just handed in my notice to leave my day job at a bookstore—my main source of income—so I can focus on becoming a writer full-time. I have been freelancing in my spare time since I was 17, but I’ve never depended on it, because my service-industry jobs were what paid my bills. Quitting my job means dramatically raising the stakes on my dreams: Before, rejections from magazines and other publications stung my ego, but now they’ll affect my ability to make rent.
I don’t know the ending to this story. I’m not privy to any spoilers, and, yes, that makes me feel a little anxious. I could get a book deal and a National Magazine Award and a genius grant; or I could max out my credit cards by the end of the month and find myself slinging cappuccinos at my old, minimum-wage barista job by fall. Right now I’m setting my sights on someplace in the lower middle portion of that range. This is a risky move, and I am very terrified. But I consider the alternative: sticking around at my day job, which makes me content and is a nice way to spend the day and would be the perfect job for some people, but is also not what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I don’t want to grow to resent this job, and myself for choosing to stay in it. I don’t want to live my life with my head stuck in some alternate reality in which I choose to go for a writing career, always wondering what might have been.
Will this work out? I don’t know. But there’s only one way to find out. ♦