When Do You Choose the Safe Path?

Early in my career, IBM dominated the computer landscape. They had the big mainframes. There were some alternatives, such as Xerox. I used a Xerox Sigma 6 in school. (I didn’t use punch cards until I started to work!)

Later, they missed the minicomputer phase. There were two big competitors, Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) and Data General (DG). My company selected DG.

I worked on several limited-purpose machines, some of which (thought they) competed with Sun Microsystems. For a while, they all had reasonable markets.

In all that time, the mantra I heard was, “No one ever got fired for choosing IBM.” Yet, I worked for companies who didn’t choose IBM. My employers didn’t take the safe choice.  They chose the best machine to be effective at the time.

Personal computing started and IBM made a big splash into the personal computing field. I wrote my Master’s Thesis on an IBM PC, in 1984. Yet, at home, we had a Macintosh. I’ve used Apple machines in my business since I had a business. I didn’t take the “safe” path with my machine choice.

I don’t take the “safe” path with my work, either. As a consultant (and writer), I would have more business than I could stand if I affiliated with one of the frameworks and taught certification classes. I don’t believe in the certifications and I would find that limited teaching and consulting boring. What I do fits for me, and might not fit for anyone else.

Our organizations encourage us to take the safe path, the default, not-conscious-thinking path. And yet, every time I’ve consciously decided to take the “unsafe”—often the unknown—path, I learn something tremendous. I succeed in ways I could never imagine.

I don’t take the unknown path all the time. I’m very careful physically, in ways you might not need or want. However, intellectually and emotionally? I often take the unknown path intellectually. Emotionally, I try to live with a whole heart, as Brene Brown says. I remain a work in progress.

We might choose the safe path we fear something. Those somethings might be:

  • We feel trapped. We don’t realize we do have choices.
  • We haven’t either taken the time to create those options and then considered the possible results.
  • We feel pressure to take a specific option, such as when no one was fired for choosing IBM.

For me, fear can drive not thinking. I don’t have the agency to think about which might happen if I succeed. I only think of the worst thing that can happen. Sometimes, I even throw in the worst thing I can do. I can downward-spiral with the best of them.

Negative thinking reinforces our fear.

Instead of fear driving our thoughts and actions, how can we manage risks to stop this spiral? I like to think about how to use my adaptability and resilence. I attached the interplay image at the top of this post.

If I realize I have alternative paths (those changes), I can generate options and follow the loop in that image. I might still select the “safe” option. However, I’ve selected that choice, not defaulted to it. For me, a specific choice feels different than defaulting to the next thing.

I can’t tell what the right decision is for you. I ask that you consider if you have selected this choice, or defaulted to it. You might be fine with the default. And you might realize the “safe” path doesn’t fit, after all.

Dear adaptable readers, the question this week is: When do you choose the safe path?

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