Gail Collins wrote a column last weekend focusing on her Woodstock memories (to summarize: things went wrong, she didn't get to much music, she still had fun). At one point she writes:
The lesson I took away from it is that whenever anybody asks you to do something off the wall, you should really try to do it — unless it involves being unethical or a two-plane connection. You might not enjoy it while it’s going on, but somewhere down the line the anecdotes will always come in handy.
I think this is a great point (even if it's not entirely original), so I decided to expand on it, incompletely and inadequately, here. Because really, everyone knows that it's true, on some level. But what people don't seem to realize is that it goes beyond the relatively inconsequential decisions; it's true at almost every level, including major life decisions.
(This isn't to say that you should do what you don't want to do, or ignore risks. It's just that people discount too many options just because they're not commonly done, and when they go out on a limb just a bit, it ends up being worthwhile.)
It is most obvious on the micro level. I spent the last ten days in Chicago, and in the days after Lollapalooza I woke up each morning with a plan to pick a direction and walk in it until I found something interesting. I was rewarded with fighter jets overhead (which, in fairness, was more due to lucky timing than anything else), the record store from High Fidelity (the movie, obviously, not the book; I didn't walk to London), an appearance by LeBron James promoting a documentary about his high school team, and a field in the middle of the city with several horses in it. The same goes for getting adventurous with food: it's low-risk, low-reward; even if it works out badly you haven't lost much and it could be a good story.
Getting a bit more macro is more educational - decisions that could have some downside, such as being a waste of time and money. I have a group of close college friends that has become geographically dispersed, so we make efforts to take trips to various cities from time to time. Usually, these are popular destinations: Las Vegas, New York, New Orleans. Our best trip, however, was one of the first: Omaha.
It was my idea, and I'm proud of it. I had gone to school right outside of Omaha and had attended the College World Series a few times, and knew how much fun it was. I suggested it to the group, and the response was lukewarm at best. There was even an email chain shortly before the trip titled (paraphrasing) "are we really doing this?" But after three days, a handful of new friendships, several friendship-testing incidents, an epic battle between a sharpie and an unnamed friend's face, and about two innings of baseball actually watched, all involved considered it a huge success.
So even at the macro level, this "going off the beaten path is worth it" idea is fairly obvious. Here comes the point of this post, and the part that goes beyond the quote above: when it comes to major life decisions, if you're inclined to do something most people wouldn't do, you absolutely should do it.
My first and smaller example of this is the law firm at which I'll be working in a few months. My school's on-campus interview program had a fairly simple signup process: we each had 35 slots to use on the 100+ firms and locations that were conducting interviews. I knew I wanted to focus on New York and DC (I know, this part isn't very adventurous) and I wanted a firm I could be at least somewhat happy at. I went through the Vault guide and knocked out all the firms that seemed a bit too unfriendly, or intense, or whose descriptions sounded a bit desperate (certain code words made themselves obvious after reading a few firm profiles). Having knocked out the prestigious undesirables, I was left with fewer firms than there were bidding slots, including several firms I knew nothing about: their Vault profiles were thin, their web presences minimal, and their associate ranks to small to have produced enough former employees to give reliable information on any non-obvious downsides. I ended up having a great experience with the firm that I knew the least about, both in the interviews and as a summer associate, and would rather work there than anywhere else.
I know that doesn't seem like a very off-the-wall thing to do, but trust me: in the context of scared law students at a good school interviewing for jobs, with the first rumblings of the credit crunch being felt (I remember, in my first callback, asking several partners how they thought the firm would be affected, in comparison with others, when things came crashing down), it was not something many of my classmates would have done.
The best example in my life came from the decisions of my parents. Moving to the New York area has been fairly standard for Irish people for the last 150 (give or take a few) years. Moving to Indonesia, in the dying days of a violent 31-year dynasty? Not so much. Following that with a move to Nebraska, a state you know so little about that you assumed it would be just like New York? Again, not a typical move. And yet outside of the direct influence of my family, growing up in these two places - learning from the natives, seeing other values systems and ways of life, making entirely new groups of friends every few years - had more to do with making me who I am today than anything else. For those of you that don't know me, I am a HUGE fan of who I am today, and I say that in an only slightly ironic tone.
Had we not moved to Indonesia, I would not have spent my formative years waking up to the muezzin's call. I would not have had a loris living in my backyard. A sixth-grade trip to Borobudur was the source of two college papers, and my experiences in Indonesia in general were the background of my largest law school project, which singlehandedly supplied 13% of the footnotes published in my academic journal this year. (See, it's not just in blog posts that I overdo the explanatory parentheticals.)
Had we not moved to Nebraska, I would not have spent my high school years surrounded by four hundred acres of corn, in a school run by Benedictine monks. I may not have discovered running, which was a huge part of my life for about a decade. And I certainly wouldn't have found myself, as I did in June at a high school reunion, in an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan making jokes about center-pivot irrigation.
Obviously this all needs some sort of caveat. Despite the examples above, I'm extremely risk-averse (a risk-averse lawyer? shocking!) and I love routine - I generally don't do something unplanned unless I'm told about it at least two days in advance, lest it disrupt my carefully-arranged workout, blog-reading (yes Ned, and blog-writing) and sleeping schedules. Which is why it's surprising, and maybe more persuasive, that I'm the one making this argument.
In any event, I have a few more months before I start work, and I hope to make some slightly irrational decisions between now and then that turn out to be great stories. There are already a few in the works. If any turn out to be both blog-appropriate and blogworthy, I'll pass them along.
Sidenote: This is my return from a long, bar-exam-forced break. I'm still adjusting and haven't really worked out my post-bar schedule yet, but I will be posting more often. And in a move which will excite at least two people, the sonnets may soon return.