‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ sang Janis Joplin, and working out what – if anything – there is to lose in general is frequently a good strategy. This was brought home to me recently in discussing a young researcher’s plans. Having attended a confidence-building workshop she had returned to her office and decided to chase up on a speculative application for a postdoc she had made previously and about which she had heard nothing. She wasn’t quite sure there was a connection between the workshop and her decision but she suspected there might have been! And, as she said to me, what did she have to lose by checking whether the professor had any interest in taking her on. The upshot was, the timing was right and she will now be heading off to the US to join a new group.
‘What had I got to lose?’ was also the phrase that went through my head many years ago when I made the switch – that in essence made my career – from working on metals to polymers. It felt like a radical thing to do, but given that I was going nowhere, was bored with the field of research I had been in for the last 5 years, I couldn’t see a downside in switching to something new for which I held a postdoc offer. I couldn’t have foreseen how it would turn my life around, but I did believe it couldn’t make things worse.
So, if faced with a fork in the road or a decision you’re inclined to take but think might be risky, it’s worth asking yourself what in reality you are putting on the line. If it’s no worse than private embarrassment or a slightly bruised ego, then you might like to calculate that really that isn’t much to suffer compared with the potential gain – perhaps as much as a new job as in the example of the young researcher I mention above. Even if it is less significant or lasting, perhaps just the experience of making a poster presentation at a conference or joining a committee, if it feels daunting it is still worth trying to do this calculation. Not just to think of what embarrassment might ensue if you mess up, but what gains to your career trajectory might be won if you do an OK job, let alone an outstanding one.
We’ve all turned down opportunities we later regret. In my case one outstanding case in point occurred when I was about 16 and turned down an opportunity to go water-skiing when on holiday in Austria. Being a bit of a coward and not a good swimmer I declined. I was never offered another chance and there is a small part of me that still minds. But I can also think of a much more recent (albeit still more than 10 years ago) and work-related example. A new group was looking for a Chair. I was sure I could do the job but waited for someone to propose me rather than offer my services in public in case they were declined. This is a classic scenario. One which women seem particularly inclined to subject themselves to. In fact what happened was someone else put themselves forward and they were accepted. The upshot of this was that the group never got going at all in that manifestation because the person concerned never lifted a finger to do anything to get it off the ground.
Since everyone likes to know the end of stories, I can confirm that, from my point of view, this tale has a happy ending. Subsequently a different bunch of people, but also including myself, got together to consider once again doing something on this particular topic. This time it was agreed we should all go away and think about how to take the idea forward. I nobbled someone as I left the room to express my own interest in acting as chair and he duly passed this on. I ended up not being discomfited by putting myself publicly forward but achieving the end I wanted: two or more years after that first attempt we duly got things going and I took on the role of Chair. That taught me how dangerous reticence can be. I hadn’t at all worked out the cost of doing nothing, or asked myself what I personally might lose (I’m ignoring any impact on the wider community) if I didn’t speak up. It also highlights that sometimes you can achieve your goals indirectly, through the medium of another person, again as a way of minimising risk and personal exposure.
I hope this illustrates that many of us can be risk-averse at least some of the time, so ‘calculating the odds’ is a strategy well worth pursuing. Undoubtedly there are times when ‘no’ is the only sensible answer. These are usually the times when you are already overloaded. But saying no because you fear being shown up or rejected is all too often the wrong thing to do. When it comes to that moment of embarrassment, someone watching will probably have forgotten about it all within minutes, even if you personally feel uncomfortable about it for months afterwards. As for rejection, there are many situations when no one else may even know you’ve been rejected (if it was an action by email or private conversation, for instance) so the loss to your standing cannot be large. In the case of the researcher I mentioned at the start, her follow-up email could have been ignored – what would have been the fall out of that? Zilch, to anyone concerned.
So, if feeling full of trepidation, try a little calculation. I’m not suggesting you go the whole Bayesian-hog but I do think it is worth thinking whether the outcome really is so bad come what may or whether in fact there is in essence nothing to lose, particularly if your current situation means you cannot be in a worse place than you are now.