Live Through This

Take a Risk

What’s stopping you is probably you.

Collage by Beth.

Collage by Beth.

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. ♦

33 Comments

  • oliviare July 9th, 2014 11:39 PM

    Wow, I love this. I’ve unintentionally adopted the mantra “Make it count” into to my life lately — with the idea that no matter what you’re doing, you should give it your all and MAKE it count rather than wishing for things to happen to you. Whenever I’m hesitant about submitting an essay or telling someone how I feel, I try to imagine my 80-year-old self: what stories does she want to tell her grandchildren? That time she saw a really cool picture or read a great book, or the same she put HER work out into the world? Embarrassment is no reason not to participate.

    Thank you for writing this! I love it when I read things that go along exactly with what I’ve been thinking about lately.

    http://oliviare.wordpress.com

  • cestlaviee July 10th, 2014 12:16 AM

    “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.”
    I REALLY NEEDED TO HEAR/READ THESE WORDS THANK YOU!!!!

  • Meash July 10th, 2014 1:10 AM

    Absolutely amazing! Had so many ‘oh my god, this is ME’ moments reading this article, and feel like I’m really at a time in my life where I needed to hear this. You’re awesome, Anna!

  • meloraine July 10th, 2014 2:30 AM

    I NEEDED this. Thank you so much :)

  • queenofnothing July 10th, 2014 6:05 AM

    I probably should print this article out and stick it to the wall as a reminder that taking risks is avery important part of this whole living thing. Thank you for these words, I really needed to read something like this! (especially this part: “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.”)

    I’m in this phase of being bored with life and that’s because I’m such a chicken and I’m scared of moving on. Recently I was trying to change that, but I wasn’t succeeding and it made me very depressed. I need to try to look at these rejections as a good things.

  • sissiLOL July 10th, 2014 9:51 AM

    Love this! <3<3<3

  • Ladymia69 July 10th, 2014 10:40 AM

    I love this too! But as wonderful as it all sounds – leave your day job behind so you can follow your bliss – how, practically speaking, do you make sure you don’t end up homeless and hungry in the meantime? I don’t have anyone to give me money when the chips get down, and if I quit my job to do art full-time, I will, realistically speaking, end up completely broke and evicted. Not trying to be pessimistic, but the universe does not always provide…so, asking someone who has decided to do this, how are you still able to pay your bills since you quit your job?

    Inspiration is nice, but some practical suggestions would be even better.

  • Maria July 10th, 2014 10:46 AM

    Thank you so much for writing this! It’s exactly what I needed to read.

  • soviet_kitsch July 10th, 2014 11:33 AM

    “i got bored with my life” AMEN. this is how i’ve started caring more about my life and started trying to live how i’ve always wanted. it’s an exhausting process and it’s not going to all fall into place at once, but honestly, the dumb stuff i used to do without thinking bores me now. i’ve deleted all my extraneous online accounts, am getting back into playing guitar, applying for lots of jobs, and casting my first-ever short movie, so let’s see where it all goes. best of luck to you anna–my mom was a freelance writer throughout my childhood and it’s a LOT of work, but you can do it. let me know if you want a list of places who could take you on. c:

  • Me_Magalloway July 10th, 2014 12:53 PM

    For a person who rarely experiences anything anymore, besides reading and listening to music, this is a pretty important article for me.

    After reading it, I decided to sign up for a kickboxing class this afternoon. Who knows how it will go, but I’m doing it. Ha, take that “fear of being hurt”.

    Thanks Anna, you rock!

    http://navigating-fairyland.blogspot.com/

  • Erin. July 10th, 2014 1:11 PM

    Anna, this is my favourite piece of yours. It resonates with me so much, I can’t even tell you. And not to be creepy, but this is Erin from that 19th century women’s fiction course at York. Hi. It’s great to see how much you have already succeeded at being a Very Professional lady Writer.

  • Maryse89 July 10th, 2014 2:55 PM

    Thank you so much for this! I’m looking for my first job right now, and it’s incredibly discouraging…so this is the kind of thing that I needed to hear

    I used to only do things I knew I was already good at, but I’ve recently began to try things that I might fail at, and it’s scary but exciting

    good luck to everybody taking risks out there! :)

  • Areeba July 10th, 2014 4:23 PM

    THIS IS SO ME! Thanks for writing this Anna!

    http://www.ihaveamessybun.com/

  • mahammk7 July 10th, 2014 4:49 PM

    This is refreshing, thanks for writing this and good luck!

  • MKat July 10th, 2014 5:05 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this Anna! As someone whose anxiety keeps them from doing, well, basically anything, I’m happy to say that you inspired me to finally log in on here and comment. Hooray for taking small risks!

  • luanda jabur July 10th, 2014 5:28 PM

    so good! i’m very much in between doing nothing just so i won’t be criticized and doing some things. felt very nice reading it <3

  • kittylee July 10th, 2014 6:06 PM

    this is just so wow amazing!! i’ve felt the same way for sooooo many years its nice knowing that there are people out there who have felt the same and are growing together by taking risks or heck even thinking about taking risks WOW highschool musical we’re all in this together

  • xcelina July 10th, 2014 7:25 PM

    omg I’ve been having horrible anxiety these past days so thanks for this uplifting article !

  • sam4101 July 10th, 2014 11:54 PM

    I relate so so SO much to the whole license anxiety. I have been putting off getting my license for months. This article is so nice though. Thank you.

    samthecreator.blogspot.com

  • flocha July 11th, 2014 5:34 AM

    Wow I really needed to hear this. I have spent so long just dreaming of being what I really want to be and now I realise I can make that happen, but I have to push myself <3

    http://whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk

  • qania July 11th, 2014 8:53 AM

    Thank you.

  • TinaBallerina July 11th, 2014 3:35 PM

    Thank you so much for this article! I really needed this right now. In a few weeks time I’m moving away from home and to another city at the same time. I’m moving in with friends, but it’s still terrifying. I’m doing volunteer work with an environmental organization I’ve been involved with for 4 years, but I still don’t have a job there. Plus my work-crush is moving to another country, so nothing will happen between us. But still, this article made me feel somewhat better about taking risks and moving!

  • theseabreaksagainst July 12th, 2014 5:59 AM

    THIS IS ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL WOW

  • Tiana July 14th, 2014 3:41 PM

    I love this article so much. I definitely need to take some of your advice. Good luck with your writing career :)
    Tiana x
    http://Www.tianaesparon.blogspot.co.uk

  • bangzz July 15th, 2014 12:24 AM

    This is amazing, truly something I’ve been thinking about as I approach my senior year of high school. Thanks so much for this eye opening piece.

    YouTube.com/stylebrats

  • Kiana Kimberly Flores July 15th, 2014 4:03 AM

    This is very helpful. Thank you.
    http://kianakimberlyflores.wordpress.com/

  • pasteldaisies July 15th, 2014 4:15 AM

    ahhhh this was so helpful and relevant and lovely to read, thank you so much for writing this <3

  • deebelievesinyou July 15th, 2014 11:57 AM

    I feel as though after I graduated college this wave of anxiousness almost drowned me. It took me longer than I ever would have imagined, but I’m getting my bearings back — floating, swimming in unknown waters and even diving into them.

    I’ve found that, together, risk and resilience equal power.

    Any way, thank you for sharing this and good luck to you.

    http://www.daundra.com

  • kariamori July 15th, 2014 4:35 PM

    I feel unable to formulate sufficient words that can express just how much I appreciated this. WOW. I love finding articles on Rookie that so closely correlate with how I feel on a literal daily basis, not to mention articles that ring true to my soul. Thanks so much for writing this! xxo

  • Serena Head July 19th, 2014 6:32 AM

    Thank you! <3 <3

  • rameen1402 August 26th, 2014 2:08 PM

    THIS HAS HELPED ME SO MUCH. BEST OF LUCK WITH EVERYTHING.