The Fallback Question

For many people, the interesting career path that they feel most passionate about is one fraught with risk. Entrepreneurship. The creative arts. Professional sports. All of those career tracks – and many more – are ones where success is relatively hard to come by.

Let’s say you’re a relatively skilled high school baseball player. You dream of playing in the major leagues someday. Here’s a stark reality for you: only 0.5% of high school baseball players are ever drafted by a major league team. Of players drafted, only about 10% ever play an inning in the major leagues, and significantly fewer than that have enough of a career to be able to make a living off of the proceeds and prestige of their career. Yes, of course, there are other paths to a professional career in baseball, but if you look at the number of players who train and dream, the actual percentage of players that make it come true is startlingly slim. You can see that same type of trimming in many other career paths, too.

The usual advice given to people in such high-risk career paths is to have a fallback career. In other words, if a person gets a scholarship to play college baseball, they’re usually encouraged to pick a major that will offer them an alternate career path should their baseball career end at the collegiate level.

Many people in many different career paths are given that same advice. Writers. Artists. Entrepreneurs. They’re all told that it’s a good idea to have a “fallback career.”

Here’s the thing, though. When I think back to the times in my life where I felt like I truly succeeded, it was almost always during situations where I didn’t have a “fallback.”

When I find myself in situations where I can just shrug my shoulders and easily take another path if things don’t work out, I don’t perform at my best.

When my back is against the wall and I know that I must pull through here, I tend to perform better than ever.

It might sound like I’m advocating throwing a “fallback career” to the wind and just going for it.

For some people, I am.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone with dependents to do it, especially if the dependents rely solely on you. If you have kids, you have an obligation to have many fallbacks in place to protect those little ones. They’re your responsibility.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone with health issues to do it. If you’ve got ongoing health concerns that could easily go awry without medical care, I wouldn’t take a leap into a void where you have to forego that care.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone not willing to live in poverty to do it. When you take on something really challenging, you might very well fall flat on your face. That might mean an extended period without income and it might really challenge your resourcefulness. If you’re not willing to make do with some very lean times, then you shouldn’t take a leap.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone without a dream and without a work ethic to do it. Have you spent many days doing nothing but completing an urgent project? Do you have something inside of you that you want very badly? Some people have these things. Some people don’t. It’s not wrong to not have them… it’s just a matter of personal wiring.

When I think about this question, I think about my own children.

A lot of parents talk big about wanting their children to chase their dreams, but when it comes down to it, they usually push their kids toward “safe” careers.

That’s the last thing on earth I want to do. I want them to take that leap when they have their youth, their energy, their lack of dependents, and their passion. I want them to stand up there and try to make whatever it is in their heart into a reality.

If it doesn’t work… well, that’s a bridge they can cross a little while later in their lives. They’ll still be relatively young, and they’ll have the experience of knowing a lot more about how the world works.

Even more importantly, they’re going to have a set of rather unique skills and some very interesting resume elements for whatever might come next in their life.

For the icing on the cake, they won’t lie awake at night wondering “what if…” They’ll know that they gave it their all.

If it does work… then they’ve launched themselves into the life of their dreams.

If they want that dream to really take off, though, they need to be devoting every ounce of their energy to that success for a while, and that means not building a “fallback career.” They’ll need to throw everything they have at it and then face forward knowing that they didn’t leave anything on the table.

If they fall… then they can look at another path. However, if they spend a lot of their energy preparing a “fallback career,” they’ll never put themselves in position to actually make that leap at all.

The obvious question people will ask here is about a “side business.” What about people who get the ball rolling on a successful career, then dabble in their dream endeavors on the side?

To me, it’s a good compromise. I don’t feel as though it will lead to success quite as often, since your main career is your fallback career, but it provides a way for people who are in situations where they need stability in their lives (dependents, health issues, and so on) to chase that dream. It’s how I got started with writing, after all.

Still, my biggest regret in life is that I never gave my dreams a wide open chance when I had the opportunity, before other aspects of my life began to require stability. I spent too much time in those days building my “fallback” career and, frankly, wasting time and money because I was lulled by the safety of that “fallback” career.

While I’m certainly not going to demand that my children leap into some risky unknown, I’m certainly not going to stop them from making that leap.

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