The devil you know

SOME YEARS AGO, when I was contemplating making a big change in my work, I found myself ruminating on the options in front of me. I could negotiate a shift in my role. I could quit my job and take a break and then figure out what to do from there. I could stay but look for a new job, doing the double shift of working one gig while interviewing for the next. I could pursue training in a new field, or try to start over in a different kind of work. I could sell all my belongings and run away to the woods somewhere. And so on. There were things that appealed about each of those options and things that absolutely terrified me, but of course I spent considerably more time contemplating the latter. Before long I was deeply and intimately familiar with all the potential hazards and traps of a dozen different paths, and I had made exactly no changes at all.

And then my body did something spectacularly useful and deeply infuriating. It broke. An injury I had previously rehabbed returned in dramatic form, and soon I was joining video calls with a heating pad wrapped around my hip, and limping to the medicine cabinet for more ibuprofen every three-and-a-half hours. I couldn’t sleep because it hurt too much, and I couldn’t walk because it hurt too much, and I couldn’t think because it hurt.

At which point I realized I had been a fool.

Here and there

I had spent months chewing on the various dangers and risks of each step I could take, and had not at all considered the dangers and risks of staying put. I had told myself a story that said that even if my current circumstances weren’t ideal, they were at least safe; and that every step I might take would be less so. I had configured a field of play that said here things are somewhat fucked up but at least survivable and there it’s anyone’s guess.

The image that comes to mind when I reflect on this is that of standing in a meadow, at the boundary of a dark forest, peering past the trees and noticing that the woods are thick and foreboding, that there are no clear paths to take, that something big and possibly dangerous seems to be moving around in there. But out here, at least, there’s sunlight and warmth and open space, and I’ve built a little shelter I can hide under when it rains, and if something big is going to come for me, at least I’ll be able to see it coming.

The problem with this image is that the meadow was actually in a flood plain, and I’d been knee deep in mud for a year, and it was past obvious that after the next flood, the water wasn’t going to recede. I was near to drowning but telling myself otherwise. It wasn’t until pain flared in my body that I realized my mistake.

The devil you know

I can see now that I was, in fact, making several mistakes. Principal among them was that I considered no change at all to be a viable option. It wasn’t, and not only because the present circumstances were untenable, but also because they were not static. It simply wasn’t the case that things were going to stay exactly as they were, because that is never the case. Things were changing around me; the question wasn’t if I changed but how I changed with them.

The second, related, error was that I assumed that all the risk was in moving, that by definition staying put was the prudent option. I could keep gathering information, could keep investigating the options, until a bright, clear, easy path opened before me. This is what I call the devil-you-know fallacy: the assumption that however bad your current circumstances are, they are at least familiar, and if you make a move, you could end up with a whole lot worse. But just because a situation is familiar doesn’t mean it’s the best you can do.

The third mistake was not paying attention to my body. I’m quite certain there were all kinds of signals that I was not in a good way before that injury flared back to life. The mind can justify a great many things given the slightest chance; the body—or, mine, at least—is often unwilling to bear the price. Had I been listening to the aches and pains that were undoubtedly building, I might have avoided several months of difficult rehab. And been able to make a decision from a place of calm and equanimity rather than one necessarily focused on pain relief.

Always a lesson

I did quit that job. And I did uncover some new devils. I’m uncertain if they were lesser or greater devils—my taxonomy of devils isn’t all that rigorous at the end of the day—but what I learned was that once you start moving, you can just keep moving. When I found a new spot that wasn’t the right place to settle, I didn’t tarry. I took another step.

With hindsight I can see that quitting wasn’t the only option I had, and I think there are other timelines where I stayed on that job, made a lot of changes, and things worked out alright. I have no regrets about being on this timeline instead of that one. But the next time I have to make a decision like this one, I intend to arrive at it before my body revolts.

The questions I wished I had asked myself back then are: What are the risks of making a change? What are the risks of not doing so? How might you mitigate those risks? What’s a small, experimental step you can take, right now? Not tomorrow or next week, but this hour, this minute?

And: how do you want to be in your work? This is different from what you want to do. How do you want to show up, to be present, to experience the work? What needs to change (in you, or in your environment) for that to be possible?

But mostly I want to remember that change is always and forever happening, whether I like it or not. And the devil you know is still a devil.