Decision, indecision (and consequences)




By Caitlin Kelly


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 — Robert Frost

Two young friends of ours — both in their early 20s, both talented, ambitious photojournalists — have faced major life and career decisions this week.

The safer path or the one that, literally, is more dangerous physically and emotionally? (Of course that’s the one that will propel him further professionally.)

The more fun, adventurous one — or the one that is more difficult and annoying in some ways, but offers a chance for her to polish needed skills and solidify useful connections?

Jose and I are fortunate to be among the older people they have turned to for advice, fielding their urgent texts, calls and emails as our younger colleagues grapple with which path to choose.

We have given them both our ears, and whatever wisdom we’ve accumulated in our combined 60 years working in news journalism. We don’t have children of our own, so it’s a real honor to be asked for our advice and input. I’m really fond of both these people and wish them only the very best, in their work and in their private lives.

One of the many issues that ambitious young journo’s grapple with is that the best stories, and opportunities, may exist in a city or country that places you at serious risk of injury, even death. Or one that’s a five or 10 or 15-hour flight away from your parents and best friend, let alone your boyfriend.

Jobs are hard to get, hard to keep and even harder to figure out what happens after that…

It’s also difficult for bright, ambitious women to juggle their admirable and ferocious desire to achieve professional success — which likely demands long hours and the ability to deny other emotional needs (see: a boyfriend or girlfriend) — with the very human wish for someone to hug you and hand you a stiff drink at the end of a harrowing day or week.

So, we gave them our best advice, and are crossing our fingers that it will work out well for both of them, whichever path they choose.

But, we all know…

There are no guarantees.

There is no job security.

No one has the right answer.

I’ve made a few momentous choices along the way — leaving behind a live-in boyfriend/dog/career/apartment for an eight-month Paris fellowship; leaving my native Canada to follow a man I loved to rural New Hampshire; arriving in New York City with no job, contacts or American education or work experience, just in time for a recession.

But things worked out — eventually. The fellowship was the best year of my life; I married the man and he walked out after two years of marriage but I now have a much nicer second husband; I’ve since survived two more recessions, but have achieved most of my career goals anyway. It just took longer than I’d hoped or expected.

I think the single most essential tool in your toolkit today is flexibility. If you must only live in one city or work at one company or use one set of skills, you’re toast. If you’re willing and able to pivot, decisions aren’t quite so dire.

Also, low overhead! When you’re crushed by mountains of debt — whether student loans, credit card bills or a huge mortgage — you’ve lost your flexibility.

Here’s one of my favorite songs ever, Father and Son, by Cat Stevens, about making life choices.

And this one, another oldie, by Harry Chapin, Cat’s in the Cradle, about a man now deeply regretting his.

What’s the biggest decision you’ve made?

(Or avoided?)

How did it turn out?

Speaking of decisions — please decide to sign up for one of my blogging, interviewing, essay-writing, freelancing, idea-developing or thinking like a reporter webinars.

Details and testimonials are here: We work via Skype, May 10 and May 17.

25 thoughts on “Decision, indecision (and consequences)

  1. Hi Caitlin.
    I loved the music. Cat’s in the Cradle happens far too often. It’s about knowing what’s important. I couldn’t tell which decision was the biggest I ever made because each one seems like the biggest until the next one comes along.

  2. Flexibility – definitely the key for any writer these days, especially freelance. And flexibility to not merely re-invent, but re-conceptualise. Biggest decision I’ve ever made? I can think of a few that vie for being ‘up there’. One was to abandon a career in academia, essentially before it started. I figured I had better things to do with my life than engage what, even then, seemed pretty much a moral void (the hatred academics hold for each other in New Zealand’s university humanities departments has to be seen to be believed). I don’t regret it – and, curiously, I think the writing I’ve achieved since, on my own merits, has been way more satisfying than anything I might have facilitated via an academic job. A harder road, but one I wouldn’t swap for anything.

    1. Thanks for weighing in — everything I read or hear about academia sounds frightening! Glad your choice worked out so well.

      I agree about re-conceptualising; everyone I know here in NY is doing as fast as they/we can!

  3. interestingly enough, my post today, is about my youngest daughter’s decision to take a road less traveled. ) so wonderful that both you and jose are able to offer your lessons, through your education, your experience, and more importantly, just have having lived life, to these young people.

  4. “I think the single most essential tool in your toolkit today is flexibility.”

    Yes, I agree. I also think that the most essential idea to hold on to is faith. Faith in yourself, in the universe, in mankind. 20 years ago I stepped out of my snug comfort zone in Toronto to go and live in Paris where I didn’t know a soul. Today I’m still here and doing alright for myself.

    You also have to trust your gut. Listen to your inner voice and act on it.

    And lastly, be optimistic (and open-minded). It’s a wonderful attitude that radiates outward and opens doors (and hearts).

    And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. To err is human. I’d rather try and fail at something than not try at all.

    1. Thanks!

      I see so many people looking for the “right” path or the correct decision. We have to do the best with who we are in that moment — and, yes, be optimistic!

  5. Gerri

    I only worked as a RN for about 6 years out of college, then I raised a family. I feel a bit lost now at what I want to do, (and it’s not returning to nursing)…there is not much else out there for someone who has been away from it all for almost 20 years. Flexibility seems to be more of a lifestyle now-a-days and I’m working on adapting to it.

      1. Gerri

        Thank you, I should look at jobs like that, however, I’m leaning towards something completely different. At this particular moment, I’m also not willing to go back to school for any length of time. I’ll see what happens.

  6. Raising two kids–but not quite finished–the most consistent messages I have tried to instill in them is that when weighing the options of what to do and how to do it, just don’t do it “regular.” The world is full of regular, and rarely does regular give you anything but safety in numbers. I want my children to taste something unique to themselves.
    Not an easy path, but a fulfilling one in the end.
    Life is short. You spend a long time dead.
    Thank you for another thoughtful and inspiring post, Caitlin. Cheers

    1. Thanks!

      Your children are fortunate to have those words of wisdom. The safest route is rarely the most interesting.

      I won my opportunity to work with WaterAid in Nicaragua because when asked what sort of stories I prefer, I said “Really difficult ones.” I am always hungry for intellectual challenges and I think it’s a great way to careen through life.

  7. Long, long, ago, in a lifetime that feels far, far, away, I was pregnant with my second son and it was (finally!) obvious to me that my then boyfriend could talk about taking care of us, but was uninterested in actually doing it. I had an opportunity to move from my small town in Alberta, Canada to my mom’s new place in Texas. It was tempting, but instead I chose to stay in Canada, move back to Ontario (where I’d grown up… sorta) and stay at a women’s shelter. There my son and I made friends, and I got the help I needed to find and furnish my own apartment. My mom and siblings missed me and begged me to come stay in Texas with them, but I knew that I needed the time alone with my son to discover myself and feel my own strength.

    It was the right choice for sure! My son and I spent hours playing with his four only toys, loving each other, imagining the baby in my belly, reading and making up stories, singing songs, and dancing to the sound of our neighbor’s loud music. During that time I learned without question that I could take care of my own children and myself without a man, without my mom, and without much money. We blossomed and I grew strong!

    Funnily, I did end up moving to Texas where I was able to help my mom home-school my special needs brothers, and where I met and married my husband of fourteen years… we’ve raised four amazing young men together too. But when I chose to move to Texas all of those years ago it was with the confidence that I was choosing it, and that I could make it work… regardless of what that would eventually mean.

    I’m sure your young friends will find that whatever path they choose they can make it work. Like you said, flexibility is key!

    Oh, ya! And one of the songs my sons and I loved to sing together was,”Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin!

  8. It gives me hope to hear you, a writer I really admire, talk about how you’ve reached your goals despite it taking longer than expected. I often feel the weight of unrealized dreams on me.

    I’ve made a lot of big decisions in my life–I am a bit of a risk-taker I guess. The biggest was probably moving to Canada to be with my now-husband. That impacted a lot of other things–doing an MA in public policy, being constricted in my ability to get jobs, etc. Career-wise it has set me back, perhaps, though in the long run I know these choices make me, and I’m pretty happy with my life on the balance.

    I definitely agree that flexibility is key, especially in light of the issues you being up in your anxiety post!

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      I arrived in NYC at 30 and really expected to hit the ground running — to match or exceed my salary from my last Canadian job two years earlier (no, I made even less); to be able to get a great NYC journalism job easily (no, no one had even HEARD of the Globe and Mail, Canada’s most prestigious and respected newspaper, where I had worked by 26), etc etc etc.

      People really underestimate how damn hard it really is to change countries for love, no matter how bright, ambitious and educated you are. I don’t regret doing it, but it slowed my social and professional trajectory by about 10-15 years from what I expected. That’s a lot of “lost” years, many of them wasted on my crummy first marriage.

      Now I hope to hang it up within a decade (i.e. retire, or at least slow wayyyyyyyyy down) — and that adds new pressure!

      I’m an insanely determined person so once I set my goals, it takes a lot to deter me. I also have zero embarrassment about taking gigs I think will serve me well (even if low-status or $$) or re-applying over and over and over to the same fellowships or jobs. Get super-clear about what matters most to you and get on with it, right?

      Once you remove your ego from the equation (hah — good luck!) it’s easier.

  9. Only one thing never lies–my gut. And every decision that seemed insane (no, Mom–no law school, I’m taking a job as a journalist for 1/10 the pay), turned out to be nothing less than pure sanity.

    1. It’s interesting how often we have to defend our decision to people who doubt them. I was lucky growing up to only be pressured to kick ass professionally but not marry/have kids/settle down or anything conventional.

  10. Pingback: Altered Lives | Unstuffy Quotidian

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