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Thriving On Insecurity

A few years ago, I was a guest at a class reunion at Princeton University. At one point, the conversation revolved around each of the alumni finishing the sentence, “Twenty-five years ago, I never would have thought that I ...” One attractive woman stood up and said, “Twenty-five years ago, I never would have thought I’d be standing here, a Princeton graduate—with honors, mind you—saying, ‘I have no idea where I’m going or what my career and my life should be about for the next twenty-five years.’ “ 
Two-thirds of the room stood and applauded her honesty and nodded in commiseration. I went up to her later and introduced myself. Her name was Claire. She was recently divorced, with two almost-grown children, and had just been downsized from an investment-banking firm. She couldn’t believe that her life had “turned out” like this. “I feel so insecure,” she said.

“It hasn’t ‘turned out,” I replied. “This is just an inconvenient moment in a long and, hopefully, colorful life. And, anyway, it could be good.”

“Are you kidding?” said Claire. “I don’t know where I’m headed. I can’t see the future. I’m not even sure I know who I am right now.”

“That’s why it’s good,” I said.

You’ve no doubt had those moments when you don’t know where you’re headed—or even who you are. Life is running along smoothly, everything in its place, and then, wham! You find yourself thrashing about in the “in between”: in between jobs, in between relationships, in between an old idea of yourself and a new one. And it’s darned uncomfortable.

Security was always the objective, the holy grail. You remember: There was national security and personal security, right? That’s when we knew that, no matter what, we’d be safe. Remember Social Security? (Actually, let’s not remember that right now.) How about job security? Financial security? There was this idea that if you worked and saved and kept a lid on your wildest dreams, you’d be fine. You’d go straight up the ladder from job to job in the same company and then, bingo: Florida! And the house right on the golf course.

Well, all those so-called securities are, if not defunct, at least a little iffy. And it may sound hard to swallow, but I believe with my whole heart that it’s OK. Insecurity can be good. We weren’t meant to live tidy, predictable lives with everything neatly laid out in front of us, like all our clothes for the next week—shoes, earrings, belts and all. In fact, I think being comfortable, which Merriam-Webster defines as “enjoying contentment and security ... free from vexation or doubt,” actually stunts growth. I’m not kidding. If we’re comfortable and secure, if we long for nothing, worry about nothing, where is the impetus to grow, to change, to invent, to reinvent?
We can’t grow if we always stay in our comfort zones. But most of us don’t move out into the unknown voluntarily. That’s why it’s good when we’re pushed out. Claire might still be in her old firm, which she later described to me as “deadly and debilitating,” and she might still be married to the same guy, whom she described as “small-minded and self-absorbed,” if the universe hadn’t had the good sense to pull the rug out from under her. Jolts like that are hard to take—insecurity is not what we were brought up to value or expect—yet they can come along at any moment. And our choices are to hunker down, wrap ourselves in what we already know, and wait for things to go back to the way they were, or step into the unknown with all flags flying, to grow, adapt and flourish. It doesn’t have to be that hard. It can even be fun.

Of course, you may not be between jobs or marriages like Claire. But whatever little moments of insecurity life throws your way are opportunities to find joy in the unknown. At the end of this article are a couple of exercises Claire and I created to help her do just that. As a warm-up, create a list of experiences you’ve considered but never tried—and actually try them. After that, you’ll be in the right mind-set to take an even bigger leap and explore possibilities you hadn’t considered before. It’s OK if you’re feeling a little insecure, a little unsure of what’s next. This is exactly the right time to let go of the handrails and step into the unknown.

Here’s Claire’s warm-up list. See how it worked for her.

Try new, exotic foods
Every week or two, go to a different restaurant that serves ethnic food or uses exotic ingredients that are foreign to you. Catch yourself when you’re about to say, “But I don’t like curry!” Try it anyway. Claire fell in love with Thai food and began using lemongrass in her own cooking.

Listen to new music
Buy some CDs or download music you’ve never heard or liked before, from Gregorian chants to salsa to rap. Claire took a class in African drumming with her daughter. At first she felt awkward, but her daughter encouraged her. They had a ball.

Try a new sport
The idea is not to win the triathlon but to put yourself out there, to feel the discomfort of learning something new — and to do it anyway. Claire bought a bike and joined a group of cyclists in her neighborhood (people she had never met before), and they now bike together every Saturday morning.

Develop a “student mentality
Your objective is to learn. See yourself going from coveting security to embracing insecurity and thriving on adventure.

A friend said to Claire shortly after she had been fired, “You should start your own company.” Her response was “You’ve got to be joking. I’m so not an entrepreneur.” Today she has her own business, specializing in providing investment services and financial counseling to women in transition, and says she finds it “hugely rewarding.” She bikes to her office. She’s dating a man she met at a Thai take-out place. She describes him as “really funny, an absolute delight.” And, she says, he gets a huge kick out of her drumming.

OK, here’s what we do, not because we’re not smart, but because we’re human: We stay inside our comfort zones; we live there. If someone says, “Hey, why don’t you take up tennis?” we say, “Oh no, really not the athletic type—never have been, never will be.” Or if someone says, “There’s a man I’d like you to meet; he’s a musician,” we say, “You know, I never had any luck with musicians. I think I’ll pass.”

Where you want to be is out there, seeking experiences you haven’t even considered that could enrich your life. That’s where the juice is; that’s where fulfillment lies. Making that leap can be scary. So here’s what you do: First, step out of that comfort zone and find the experiences you’ve thought about but haven’t tried.
Reprinted from Real