Standing at a Crossroads: Is 'Known' Better?

Is a Known Quantity Always Better? |

I’ve always been the type of person who’s generally resistant to change.

Or – to frame it a bit more positively, because I’m trying to do that more lately – for as long as I can remember, I’ve found deep, resounding comfort in stability.

I place a lot of value in having that full-picture understanding of where I am and what to expect, and having the space to settle into that reality and really get cozy in it. And with very few exceptions, I don’t need need things to be ‘shiny and new’ to keep me engaged or interested. (There’s a reason my Recently Watched tab on Netflix features the same four shows at any given time.)

When given the choice, I will almost always lean toward ‘staying the course’ over ‘mixing things up’ as long as there’s not an obvious, pressing need to change direction. If it’s not broken, why fix it - am I right?

It’s important to make that distinction though, “when given the choice.” Because as we know, there are two kinds of change: there’s the kind of change that blindsides us – the kind we didn’t ask for, and that we don’t have much power to do anything about. (Think medical diagnoses, nauseating results of presidential elections, or changes in leadership at your company.)

And then there’s the kind of change that plants us firmly at a crossroads and asks, “are you in, or are you out?” – the kind that presents us with a choice. That’s where I have a long track record of avoiding a shake-up, and leaning into what’s familiar.

But what happens when the familiar choice is somehow broken, or not working?

We’ve all been in that place where something feels a little broken. A job, a relationship, a living situation, a habit. So then why, when we’re standing at that crossroads, does the idea of making a change feel SO daunting?

In some sense, the kind of change that puts us in the driver’s seat can be the toughest kind – because it means having to look that crossroads in the face, and decide which kind of discomfort we prefer: the discomfort of making a big change, or the discomfort of staying where we are when something is clearly not working.

Just as an example, imagine this within the context of a job. Specifically, the kind of job that pays the bills and serves its purpose, but where you know in that inner-place-of-knowing that you’re just not very happy. It’s probably not glaringly awful – and sure, you could rattle off some of its redeeming qualities – but the truth is, you still go home at the end of most days feeling exhausted, or defeated, or simply like this job is taking away more than it’s giving you.

And then, the obvious question starts to creep into your mind: is it time to find a new job?

That question, at first, ignites the flicker of hope that maybe there’s something better out there to be had. We start imagining shinier alternatives, and best case scenarios, and what it would feel like to unload some of the stress we’ve been carrying around. We may even start to turn these ideas into a pro/con list to help sort things out. (No? Just me?)

On paper, the Pros of change hold so much hope and promise. But as we start making that inevitable Cons list, I’ve found that mine tend to focus disproportionately on one thing: the risk of the unknown.  

I get it - because we, as deeply-conscious decision makers, do this. At a significant crossroads when the unknowns and risks of change start to come into focus and feel more real, we start talking ourselves into backpedaling, reversing, or U-turning right back to where we started. Because where we started is a known quantity, and something about that feels safe. “Sure I'm not totally happy here ... but who's to say jumping ship wouldn't land me somewhere way worse?

But here’s my question: if most of what we know about the known quantity is that it isn’t really working, do we really get to count that as a ‘pro’?

Is being ‘known’ or ‘familiar’ automatically a good thing?  

Personally, I think we fall into this trap as a form of self-soothing. When we start mentally flailing at even the possibility of our world turning upside down in ways that we can’t predict, or plan for, or carefully manage one piece at a time, we start looking for something to hold onto. Something for balance, or stability – and without the ability to predict the future, sometimes the present is all we have. (Even when the present is kind of a shitshow.)

But there’s that flip side, too: the importance of acknowledging that choosing to stay put is just as much an active decision as choosing to make a drastic change – and that becomes relevant when where-we-are-now is causing us unnecessary pain.

Sure, it’s a pain we’ve become familiar with and learned how to manage, which can feel oddly comforting compared to a cold, harsh winter of unpredictable newness. But the point remains, there is clearly a price to staying put – and it’s the reason we start dreaming of better alternatives in the first place.

So: how can we make the best choice for ourselves when we’re standing at a crossroads, without putting too much stock in a known quantity simply because it’s known?

I stumbled on an important mindset shift recently – one that helps me keep the fear of newness from creeping in and taking over when I’m standing at a fork in the road.

Here’s the simple truth: that many of the things I think of as risks that accompany change – things like newness, unforeseeable challenges, and starting over – are the kinds of things I’m totally equipped to handle. In other words, I don’t need to worry about sheltering my future-self from these big, looming obstacles – she’s got this. She’s resourceful, and capable, and savvy. She’ll be fine. And that knocks a lot of the wind out of the ominousness of starting down a new path.

Sometimes, remembering to give my future-self some credit and some trust is all the reassurance I need.

Deciding to place trust our future selves in the face of the unknown is tough (that’s the nature of trust, after all) but it’s also wildly empowering. It gives us the opportunity to make a clear-headed decision that’s not clouded by fear, or the pressure to make a ‘fail-proof’ decision. Because not only is it impossible to consult a manual or crystal ball as we’re making decisions that will impact our future selves, but let’s be honest: there is no such thing as a risk-proof path.

No decision we make can protect us from risk, or pain, or struggle – even the decision to stay the course. So when we prioritize total stability above all else and let ourselves believe that avoiding change is a surefire way to avoid pain or discomfort, we’re fooling ourselves.

But investing unshakable self-trust in our present- and future-selves is what frees us up to really look objectively at our options, and weigh them without the kind of anxiety or fear that clouds our judgment.

And so, my challenge to you is to let go of the pressure to make perfect, pain-proof choices.

Instead, take a moment to breathe, and remind yourself of all those times you’ve done hard things – that long list of times you not only made it out ok, but became a better, stronger, more awake version of yourself because of those experiences. You’ve done hard things, and you’ll be called on to do them again. And while it’s tempting to want to protect our future selves from that kind of pain or discomfort when we can foresee it, we also have to consider the cost of walking away from opportunity.

So knowing that discomfort is inevitable, try sitting with the question: what are the things you really, truly want for yourself? And be willing to choose your path forward with the answers to that question in mind, knowing that your future-self has what she needs to endure the journey.

She can handle it. She’ll be ok. Give her the gifts of your trust, the opportunity to grow, and the chance to pursue the things her intuition knows she wants for herself.