We live in a society with high expectations for success – personal, relational, financial and professional. Though defined in many different ways and set in many different contexts, our pursuit of success is animated by both opportunities and threats. Some of us are motivated more by opportunities and channel our ambition through creativity and innovation. Others respond more to the threats and find the downside risk of failure to be a strong motivator. We may or may not be fully aware of the complexity of our own motivations as they are interlaced through the circumstances of life.
Regardless of how we interpret the world and our experiences in it, the pursuit of success comes with inherent risks that emerge with the turn of events. Good intentions will sometimes yield to unforeseen realities, unintended consequences and unanticipated collateral effects. Sometimes life is messy. Trade-offs may not be clear. Options may be limited. There are times when we might feel as if we are the victims of other people’s choices.
How do we know when it’s time to take an off-ramp and choose another road to follow? It’s a tough call.
We often hear about people who find it desirable or necessary to pursue a new road. A business leader elects to step down from a top management role to start a new business. A service professional chooses to go back to school to retrain and pursue a new career path. A candidate for office concludes a campaign and faces a difficult decision about next steps. An error in judgment or a lapse in performance leads to a sudden loss of a job.
Off-ramps go well beyond the categories of career and job, however. We may be faced with an agonizing choice about ending an unhealthy, perhaps abusive, relationship. A diagnosis can cause an abrupt change in course. There may one day be a decision to end treatment and prepare for the remaining days of life. Caring for a young child or an aging parent may lead to difficult but necessary adjustments in life circumstances.
On the lighter side, an off-ramp to a new knowledge interest or skill set may open the road to a fresh profession or avocation that is most rewarding. Pursuing an opportunity to downsize and embrace a simpler lifestyle may prove to be most fulfilling. A timely retirement decision may reignite passions that lead to personal renewal.
If off-ramps are inevitable, can we prepare for them? I think so.
We can begin by assuming that off-ramps will be a part of our lives. I often ask myself two questions when I am confronted with a challenging set of circumstances: What am I trying to achieve? What am I trying to protect? This is a way for me to balance the motivators of opportunity and threat. When I start with these questions, I find clarity in understanding what I care about and why. It helps me order my thinking and set some boundary conditions for the circumstances I am willing to accept and those I would prefer. It does something more than just analyzing pros and cons or attempting to prioritize options. It feels less linear or sequential to me and seems to create a more flexible intellectual space in which I can think and plan. Exercising the discipline in asking these questions can help me be prepared when a choice for an off-ramp appears on the horizon.
Going one step further, we can anticipate an off-ramp by periodically examining the dynamics that surround us. For me, anticipation is not a call to action; it is rather a call to reflection. The seasons of life are to some extent predictable. Early career steps can be bumpy and lead to some false starts as we try to find a meaningful professional path. Likewise, the early days of a budding relationship come with uncertainties we can choose to embrace, but also require patience with unavoidable ambiguities. The developmental stages of adulthood inevitably lead to decisions influenced by the needs of family, career and later life.
Assuming the likelihood of off-ramps and anticipating where they are likely to appear on the road of life can enable us to be resilient. I was taught years ago that I should always have three ways out of any situation. I don’t always identify three, but the discipline forces me to have options, and in the end options drive resilience. It’s much easier to overcome adversity when I work under the assumption that adversity may appear at any time, and I manage the associated risks by anticipating possible responses.
We also need to keep in mind one very important reality. Off-ramps almost always involve others. We need each other. Choices this important can almost never be made in isolation. There is an old saying, “Make your friends before you need them.” While this may sound a bit self-serving, it contains a very genuine expression of human need – we can never really go it alone. Involving others reinforces the strength and courage we need to respond to the threat or pursue an opportunity.
We can’t plan for every possible destination on this journey, but I think it is possible to be prepared when the off-ramps appear.
About the Author
I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.