In general, dictionaries define ‘risk’ (either as a noun or a verb) as a situation involving exposure to danger, harm or the loss of something valuable. I mention this, because over the past few weeks another interesting point of discussion has come to my attention. That is, whether I viewed the move from law to writing as a ‘risk’.
My answer is ‘no’.
As with any profession, it helps if you have confidence in your product, whatever that happens to be. When I worked in financial regulation, I had confidence that I knew my area of law and would be unlikely to give advice based in fantasy. Similarly, when I began to consider a change of career, I spent just as much time writing as I did garnering advice, opinions and critiques from people I knew to be the antithesis of ‘yes men’. That way, before unleashing myself on the wide world, I had some small basis for thinking that there could be a market for what I was writing. Now, don’t misunderstand. One book does not an author make. I’m not complacent enough to think that just because enough people enjoyed reading ‘Holy Island’, that means there will always be a market for whatever material I choose to write. If people stop buying the books, I’ll take the hint and stop writing them, except for my own pleasure. Simple as that.
That’s where it helps to be flexible and tough-skinned. It’s easy to be philosophical when the sun is shining but, if and when a rain cloud hovers (I’m continuing with this weather-based metaphor) then it helps to be adaptable. Is there something which needs to be changed, altered, scrapped altogether? Is the book just a load of bollocks? They’re all valid questions.
Here’s where the notion of ‘risk’ comes in again. Did making a career change expose me to a situation involving danger, harm or loss? I have friends who would like to change profession, but feel that they have spent so much time or investment in their present choice of career that it would somehow be a waste to change it now. Let’s think about this definition of ‘risk’ for a minute…
The good thing about opting to be a writer rather than, say, a government sniper, is that any real danger tends to exist only on the pages you write.
As to the second element, it depends on what you count as being harmful. The blow to my self-esteem could have been harmful, if nobody had bought a single copy of my precious, precious book…but then, life is full of successes tempered by setbacks. It is a very fortunate person who manages to get to their thirties without a measure of both. Bearing that in mind, I’m pretty sure I could weather the storm (there I go again harping on about the weather. It’s raining here today and I’m sheltering in a local coffee shop).
Finally, the third. It’s true that I spent years training and working in the legal world. But I don’t consider leaving that world to be a loss. Nor was all that time; there were people I helped along the way and, in exchange, I learned how to formulate an argument, draft a legal document and generally channel my argumentative spirit into a useful outlet. I think this approach applies across the board: investing x amount of years into a particular life choice does not mean that you are beholden to it for the rest of your life. The time spent was useful because, along the way, you will have learned skills, made friends and taken more steps towards acquiring the kind of wisdom we all hope to have when we are old and grey.
Obviously, there are practical considerations (money, for instance) which may prevent some people from making any alteration to their present circumstances, no matter how unhappy or unfulfilled they may be. I understand this – after all, we live in the real world. But nobody is saying that change has to happen overnight. If you have the self-belief, you can start making small changes. In my case, jotting down some notes for stories whenever I had a chance, then waiting for the opportune moment to make the leap. One key skill is distinguishing between useful input from people who want to see you succeed and naysaying from people who lack the impetus to change their own fate. The former can help you to become the best you can be, while the latter can hold you back.
I am a firm believer that people are capable of being many different things through the course of a lifetime. There is no Orwellian dictator who decides your fate at birth and requires you to adhere to it for the next eighty years. You may start out a lawyer and you’ll never un-learn those skills. If you’re a musician, you’ll always be able to play. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do a little something different on the side. When the decision to try something new has been tempered by genuine thought and consideration, it is no longer a risk. You are making a calculated change.