Three tips for taking risks in your career

I am experimenting with a series about the intersection of literature and career advice. I have read a lot of novels, and I have read a lot of career advice. The two surprisingly have a lot in common. Today is Edward Ferrars and what he can teach us about taking risks in our careers. 

Edward Ferrars from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility might not seem like the most obvious choice for a risk taker. He is a quiet, mousy sort of character, unobtrusive, someone you probably would never notice at a big party. In fact, he wouldn’t be at the party at all. This doesn’t bode well for him. After all, how can someone who doesn’t put himself forward achieve success?

Out of all of Jane Austen’s characters, Edward has the most to lose. He is from a wealthy family. His mother and sister have picked out a wife for him, have a vision of a clever career path, and would like to see him jaunting about town in elegant modes of transportation. His family wants him to be fashionable. If he chooses to go against their wishes, chances are very good that his mother will disinherit him.

But all Edward wants is a quiet country life as a clergyman. The safe route would be to do exactly as his family wants, to marry well, and to inherit the family fortune. Instead, his honor matters more to him than security. He is willing to risk everything for his happiness.

The way he takes risks, and how he rebounds from them, can tell us a lot about taking risks in our careers while still maintaining a safety net.

1. Stay patient.

At first, it looks as if Edward isn’t on his way to success. He has engaged himself to a woman he doesn’t love, and he intends to marry her anyway because this is 19th century England. Many of us view our careers this way. We don’t really love them, but they offer security and, anyway, we committed to them. Most of us are inclined to stay the course.

Sometimes, the first careers that we choose when we are young and lack life experience will not make us happy. Know that you will make mistakes, but no situation is irrevocable. It is important to stay patient and meet new people and try new things until you find the career that seems right.

2. Pursue the things that make you happy.

Edward’s first scheme for happiness is a total disaster. He goes against his family’s wishes, but he ends up engaging himself to a woman who would never make him happy. He is completely seduced by the glittery, cunning option, only to realize too late that she lacks substance.

Despite his youthful mistake, Edward makes his scheme for happiness in another area. He will be a clergyman, and he will find at least one point of happiness in a quiet life. But it turns out the woman he was engaged to was just after his money. In your career, don’t chase money. Trust that pursuing the things that make you happy will attract the people you want to have in your life–and drive away those you’d rather avoid.

3. Build a network.

Edward can afford to take risks. He doesn’t need to worry about where money will come from because he has friends who care about him and his future. Colonel Brandon, an acquaintance through the Dashwoods, hears about his predicament and wants to help. He gives Edward a living on his estate, saving him from destitution. It is far less likely that you will fail if you have a network to fall back on if your risk taking doesn’t pan out.

If the idea of networking fills you with existential dread, just remember that no one likes networking. Think of it instead as making friends with people who happen to have the same career as you. And if that doesn’t help, don’t think of it as trying to exploit other people to get their help. What can you contribute to the careers of other people? Chances are if you help them, they will be willing to help you later in your career, too.

Five steps to get your career back on track

I have been thinking lately about the intersection of literature and career advice. For instance, Jane Austen was wise before her time, and a lot of her characters’ choices mirror those of job hunters in the modern world.

Most career advice will tell you that pursuing your passion is stupid. The top priority, apparently, should be to make money and to forget about happiness. There will be time for hobbies in your free time, they say. Focus on making money. In literary terms, be more like Charlotte Lucas and less like Elizabeth Bennet.

Even though Jane Austen wrote about courtship, she actually has a lot to say about careers. I am going to give you five steps for getting your career back on track inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

1. Make a list of any values you would never go against.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet turns down not one but two very lucrative offers. In modern terms, it is like she was offered jobs but decided that they didn’t quite fit in with her principles. Charlotte Lucas accepts the first man who shows any interest in her. This is practical. She is doing the thing that most of us do in our career searches.

Elizabeth is the heroine because, despite her mother yelling at her for making such stupid decisions, she is not really making stupid decisions. She is willing to hold out for perfection and so gets her happy ending. Most of us get scared before reaching this point because we value security over perfection. And that is OK as long as we are honest about it and stop making ourselves unhappy because our jobs aren’t perfect.

2. Gain self-knowledge.

Charlotte is comfortable, but she’s also likely extremely bored. She has chosen to hole herself off in the countryside with her pompous husband and his overbearing, snooty patroness. But she values security over everything else. She knows this about herself, and she is able to make the decision to marry Mr. Collins without being miserable about it.

On the other hand, Elizabeth would never make that decision. She is self-aware enough to know that she cannot sacrifice her happiness to guarantee financial security for herself, her mother, and her sisters. She is willing to risk that either she or one of her sisters will make a suitable match to give them a place to live when their father dies. Although they take different paths, both Charlotte and Elizabeth possess enough self-knowledge to pursue what will make them content. You can’t know which path is right for you unless you have that self-knowledge.

3. Take inventory of your skills.

Lady Catherine, one of the main antagonists of the novel, believes that she could be proficient at anything if only she would devote time to it. So would her daughter, if her health allowed it. What she is saying is that she doesn’t think it is worth her time to become that good at anything because she is already rich and doesn’t value learning for learning’s sake.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that point of view. Becoming very, very good at something takes a lot of time and effort. Really exceptional athletes, for example, spend most of their free time on training and practice to the exclusion of everything else. Most of us will never achieve that kind of persistence. We try once and fail and binge watch TV. Even Elizabeth Bennet isn’t the best pianist. You have to be able to honestly answer whether you are willing to put in the time and energy that a new path requires.

4. Know when to try something new.

Mary, the middle Bennet sister, devotes a lot of time to gaining accomplishments. She does so to the exclusion of spending more time with her sisters, going for walks to the village, and building relationships. Yet, we know that she is wasting her time. At the Netherfield Ball, she embarrasses herself and her family by putting herself forward to play complicated piano pieces, and she is not good at it.

You don’t have to be a natural at the thing you want to do, but if you are devoting a lot of time and energy to it and not improving, maybe you should try something else. It might be that you will never be good at calculus or weren’t meant to be an engineer. Maybe you are like a fish who is trying to climb a tree. It is futile, and you would be better off finding a place where you can swim instead.

5. Decide when to take risks.

For most people, the answer to this step will be never. You will likely be best off in your current job, boring but stable, but maybe try tweaking small aspects. Find a shorter commute or a better boss. In other words, most of us will value security, and we can find that in our boring career path.

If, after taking inventory of your life and skills, you decide that you do want to take risks, I have three tips for you in the next post. Those tips come from Edward Ferrars, Jane Austen’s ultimate risk taker (yes, really).