“You’re leaving academia. I can’t believe it!” exclaimed a good friend and fellow law professor.
“No,” I corrected him. “I’m not leaving academia. I’m starting a blog and writing books for the general public. That’s all.”
“But you’re ruining your scholarly significance,” he asserted. “You’re going to become a laughing stock.”
This conversation happened two years ago. I was reminded of it recently when I interviewed the yoga teacher Chelsey Korus on my podcast. During the interview, she shared this excerpt from one of her favorite poems:
“I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom.”
// Dawna Markova
When we look in the mirror, we tell ourselves a story. It’s a story about who we are and who we aren’t and what we should and shouldn’t do.
We tell ourselves that we’re a serious professor, and serious professors don’t blog or podcast for the general public.
We tell ourselves that we’re a serious 60-year-old, and serious 60-year-olds don’t start a second career.
We tell ourselves that we’re a serious lawyer, and serious lawyers don’t quit their careers to teach yoga.
There’s a certainty to the story. The story makes us feel significant and secure. The story makes us feel welcome. The story connects us to those serious professors, lawyers, and 60-year-olds who came before us. It makes us feel safe.
But instead of us shaping the story, the story shapes us. Over time, the story becomes our identity. We don’t change the story because changing it would mean changing who we are. We fear losing everything we worked so hard to build, we fear that others might laugh, and we fear making a fool out of ourselves.
Like all others, the story of your significance is just that: A story. A narrative. A tale. If you don’t like the story, you can change it. Even better, you can drop it altogether and write a new one.
Writing a new story doesn’t risk your significance. Let’s stop fooling ourselves about that. We’re in this life for a momentary blip. We’re making the briefest of stands on the pale blue dot called Earth, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” in Carl Sagan’s memorable words.
But when we don’t act—when we stick to the illusion of our significance—the risks are far greater. We risk leaving a story untold, a canvas unpainted, a business unlaunched, a song unsung.
It was agonizing for me to dismiss the advice of my friend—who I know had the best of intentions. There were moments of tremendous doubt along the way where I thought I made the wrong call, that perhaps I should have stuck with exclusively writing serious academic papers. But you wouldn’t be reading this article if I hadn’t risked my own significance.
It’s only when you risk your significance that what came to you as seed will go to the next as blossom. The powerful play of life goes on, as John Keating from Dead Poets Society reminds us, and you may contribute a verse.
A new verse.
Even a whole new story.
What will it say?
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).