Bullets vs. Big Macs: Why You’re Killing Yourself by Playing It Safe

By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

By Geoffrey Fairchild (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Flickr

Four handguns and a semiautomatic pointed at my skull. The stench of raw sewage stung my sinuses while 105-degree sunbeams pierced the cracks in the hillside cinder-block labyrinth. My joints locked up, and I sucked in one shallow gasp as my brain went to mush.

It was December 21, 2012–the day the world was supposed to end. In the week before, I paid scant attention to the sardonic “Mayan Apocalypse Party” Facebook invitations; but for the longest 20 seconds I’ve ever known, I sensed my world would end then and there in Brazil’s biggest favela.

The shouted Portuguese commands didn’t consciously register with me, and whatever verbal and bodily responses I mustered were automatic. I peeled my sweat-soaked jersey above my stomach to reveal my empty waistband, and the blur of men behind the guns realized I was just an unarmed gringo. That’s all that mattered, and strangely they lowered their weapons, profusely apologizing as we parted in separate directions.

In fact I was hardly ever in any real danger despite the drama, which was entirely due to my ignorance. I had merely lost my way in Rocinha’s criss-crossed paths near my new apartment, leaving me looking confused and pacing back and forth. I later discovered my unusual behavior and out-of-place, stubbly, white guy appearance embodied the drug traffickers’ conception of an undercover cop.

More importantly, that harrowing experience gave me reason to stay and work against the systemic marginalization that fuels the existence of such drug gangs in favelas. After nearly a year and half living in Rocinha, I know I wasn’t much risking my life. I’m confident that I, like all foreigners with common sense, was in far less danger inside the favela than in tourist neighborhoods of Rio.

Nevertheless, my friends, family, and university emphasized more the grave risk in my post-graduation career choice. Not only was I straying from the trodden path of my peers to Wall Street, consulting, and the Fortune 500, I was not even pursuing any job or subsequent degree. Worse was that I was starting a scary business in a scary place with no real experience to guide me. Without a doubt, compared to the accepted model I was a freak. In society’s eyes, if I could dodge the gunshots, how would I ever make enough money to survive?

Ultimately, there was no Favela Experience IPO, yet I (and my customers) left without a scratch, and I earned enough to live off of for two years. Beyond that, I felt the unique fulfillment of running my own business, one that satisfied my customers while generating significant income for disadvantaged favela families. Even if I can’t innumerate a list of pithy business lessons from my experience, most valuable of all, I learned a great deal about myself and what I need to thrive. I won control of my present and my future, and as hard as it could be at times, I began truly living.

Looking back, the perceived big risk I took wasn’t so risky at all. I had little money to lose or commitments to harm. At the least, I stood to gain self-awareness and grit from the unpredictability and challenge of entirely new life experiences.

On the other hand, it was actually the traditional and dogmatically-presented “safe” path that was terribly risky for me. I can’t refute that by working 80+ hours weekly to “maximize value” for faceless clients I could boost my hypothetical, initial high-five-figure salary to mid-six by age 27. Nor can I deny I could go on to a prestigious MBA plus $150k in debt to next slave toward the arduous partner/VP track. By my 40s I’d probably become quite wealthy, albeit pressured to maintain an exorbitant lifestyle in order to maintain my social and professional circles.

Still, what was suspiciously absent from that senior year calculation of potential career options was everything but wealth. I’m grateful I had the foresight to recognize the likely health and spiritual costs of following convention. I simply would’ve hated that kind of work and probably wouldn’t have been very good at it.

Whether scarfing down artery-clogging fast food meals at my desk so I could meet urgent deadlines or awaking to dread another day of a tiring routine at a company I don’t care about, I’d be forgoing well-being and self-actualization for financial security and social conformity.

What’s so special about safety, anyways? At its core, seeking safety is one of our two possible responses to our fear of an unknown future. The other is embracing uncertainty.

By seeking safety, our rewards are necessarily bound by what’s socially desirable: income, status, and appearance. At best, the cult of safety bestows incrementally better lives, in the material sense, upon its devotees who are left wondering, “What if?”

Alternatively, by embracing uncertainty, we seek the painful challenges that force us to try and fail, to open ourselves to new beliefs, and to finally grow beyond the lives we’re told to live.

Applying these attitudes to the real world two years out of college, I’m dismayed to see the safety fallacy gripping friends and former classmates who have incredible potential. I can’t think of a single person who took a finance or consulting job who doesn’t lament significant elements of their work, including the meaningfulness of the role, the mindset of their colleagues, and the lifestyle of their profession.

Nonetheless, these people rationalize their dissatisfaction as a few brief years of “paying their dues” to get promoted, earn higher salaries, and do more important work. In particular, I worry for those aspiring entrepreneurs who are waiting for the right moment. The longer they wait only accumulate more personal commitments (relationships, children, and debt) and increasingly accustom themselves to lavish habits. They say they’re “saving up to quit,” but they struggle to state concrete sums needed to do so.

In my case, I know every day rejecting safety further excludes me from ever returning to safety. It only took a few guns pointed at my head to accept that challenging path, but I know the rewards will be exponential from here forward.

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