So many in my personal and professional circles have been encouraging and supportive of my move to India this fall to join Enabling Leadership (EL). They are happy for me, even proud, and called me, or the work I’m going to do, “noble,” “brave,” and “bold.” They are impressed with my “courage.” A few have wondered or asked, however, if I’m also scared. I quit my position at The Children’s School (TCS) without another in hand, and I’m taking a job across the world in a different hemisphere, culture, community and industry, with little to no experience with the people I’ll work with or serve, at a scale I can imagine but not yet understand, and without the same pay and benefits of a head of school. That’s just on the professional front. Personally, Neeti and I became American citizens two months ago, she’s happy in her job and her business is growing, and she will remain in Atlanta for the ten months I’ll be abroad. I’ve mitigated every risk I know, but it’s still enough to scare me. I could have said yes to EL in May 2019 but it took me another five months to do so. And, I’d wake up panicked even after Neeti and I made our decision in late October. I’d panic inside every time I told people what I’m going to do. A lot of self-talk and self-doubt would start and repeat itself: What have I done? It’s not too late yet. I can say no. I can do something else. This other opportunity just popped up; it’d be perfect for me. Yes. No. What have I done?
We are terrified of vulnerability. I can be not-great in front of my family and friends, who will not take advantage of my vulnerable moments, when I’m doubtful or doubted, scared and anxious, imperfect or just mediocre. Put me in front of strangers and I’m careful about what I will share. I don’t want you to think less of me, question me, or not respect or admire me. I don’t think I’m that different from you. Brené Brown didn’t develop a whole industry just around my fears and anxieties.
So what am I terrified of, really, and why?
- I’m terrified Neeti and I will be apart too long, and we’ll grow apart with distance and time.
- I’m terrified of leaving behind a comfortable life here.
- I’m terrified of not adopting or adapting to my family, friends, work life and colleagues, the traffic and the pollution, the chalta-hai (anything-goes) attitude.
- I’m terrified of what looks like chaos and indiscipline in Indian work and life, and a fatal lack of urgency to my Western eyes.
- I’m terrified of my inability, ignorance, or unwillingness to adjust to the cultural norms, and theirs to adjust to mine.
- I’m terrified that I’ve changed too much and who I am cannot change anymore.
- I’m terrified of failure.
- I’m terrified I hit my professional peak in my thirties. I’ve made a bad decision to leave the status and reputation, and mentors and networks, that I’ve carefully cultivated and gained over almost two decades of working in independent schools.
- I’m terrified that I will disappoint others, and others will disappoint me.
- I’m terrified I’ll disappoint India and India will disappoint me. My romance with India and the work will end, and I’ll be faced with an unrelenting and discomforting reality.
As August draws closer, I have more days when I’m excited than scared, and I’ve accepted that neither feeling is going away for a while.
In late fall 2019, I sat down for breakfast with a TCS parent. She wanted to pick my brain on a work project. This parent was going through a transition of her own at work. She had quit her comfortable job and was striking out on her own. Her father, an immigrant to the United States, was a pioneer and entrepreneur, but now worried for his daughter. To him, he didn’t have a choice when he moved here, but he took on those risks so his daughter didn’t have to later. Now she had left a comfortable salary and benefits in a big company to try something new and less comfortable. I didn’t tell the parent what I was going to do next, but I empathized with her and shared with her the broad outlines of my next move. She told me something that had given her courage, a quote by someone else whose name she couldn’t remember at the time, that made me feel a lot better about my own decision:
We are kept from our goal not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal.Robert Brault
I know my goal for the ten months starting August, but I don’t know what I’ll do after next June. I don’t know if it’s the best decision I’ll ever make, or the most stupid. I don’t know what I’m gaining and I’m scared of losing what I leave behind. I’ve always been a planner and, in a long time, I don’t know what my plan is beyond the next 15 months. I’m not 21 anymore, but I also have decades of work still ahead of me. I’ve bet on myself before, and I’m making that bet again. The path isn’t clear and that’s okay; I choose this discomfort to allow a few surprises in my life now.
Note: My fears, at least some of them, are irrational. I know that. I wrote this to respond to the few who’ve wondered whether I feel any fear. The Brené Brown fans will understand that courage and fear are not mutually exclusive; the vulnerability and discomfort that will stretch me also contain immense possibilities.