Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
I’m facing a dilemma. I’m a queer female software engineer in the Midwest. I make a good living — there’s room for my compensation to grow, sure, but I’m doing okay. I like my job for the most part. I work for a small company, but I’ve got a solid boss, fun co-workers, and I don’t often find myself bored by our constantly rotating projects.
Over the last few years, I’ve built a nice life in the city where I live. My family is close by, and beyond my job, things are going well. I’m single, but I have a large group of friends, including my very own gaggle of queer girlfriends who I’d be incredibly sad to not see regularly. I also have hobbies! I play on sports leagues and build furniture in my spare time. Oh, and until about a month ago, I was thinking of becoming a homeowner for the first time.
So far, so good, right? In a very unexpected turn of events, I was contacted out of the blue six weeks ago by a manager at one of the very large tech companies out in the Bay Area. While I wasn’t actively looking for a new job, I felt like I had to go through the interview process with a company like them, so I agreed to talk. To my surprise, they keep liking me and advancing me farther and farther along, and now I’m preparing to travel out to California for an in-person interview. We haven’t talked exact compensation numbers yet, just ranges, but the numbers they’ve been throwing around are approximately 2.5-to-3 times what I currently make.
And I’m filled with dread.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hugely exciting for a company like that to be contacting me and evaluating me as competent and worthy of hiring. It’s been a great boost to my self-esteem, and as someone who has always struggled with impostor syndrome (thanks to being a woman who works in tech), that’s been pretty awesome. And of course the money I’d make at a job like that could make me much more financially secure. The problem is, I don’t know if I want to get an offer from them. It would be so much easier if they just decided I wasn’t good enough. If things go well out there and they give me an offer with absurd compensation, how do I value all that I’ve built up in my life out here vs. making money I’ve never even dreamed of?
I’m so scared at the thought of losing my friends and my support system and everything that makes me happy. But I also know that working for a major company like that could open doors in my future that may be closed to me, were I to stay at my small organization. I worry about taking a leap and being miserable, but also about turning it down and forever regretting it (the last thing I want to do is go all Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront in 20 years). I don’t even know where to start should I need to make this decision.
Coulda Been a Contender
I know exactly how you feel. This morning, in fact, I was thinking about how unmotivated I am to finish this ambitious project I just started, in part because I’m afraid that it will change my life too much. Even though I’m sure that I would enjoy some of those changes — which might sometimes include driving out into the world instead of always working from home, and collaborating with other smart, creative people — I also love the life I’m living right now. I love dropping my kids off at school and then walking my dogs and deciding for myself how I want my day to unfold. I’m extremely careful not to work myself into the ground for the first time in my life, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. (No, I would never stop writing this column! I love this too much to quit!)
Recently, I was having dinner with a very wise friend who told me, “You can put on the brakes at any time. You can choose this adventure, and then decide it’s not for you. But don’t avoid the whole thing out of fear.”
It was astute of her to notice that fear played such a big part in my thinking about how to proceed. And it was smart to point out that I’m still in the driver’s seat, every step of the way. The bottom line is: You can move forward. You can get more information, observe, and even dive in, but still change your mind. You have that right. Be patient with yourself and gather all of the information you need to make your decision.
This opportunity feels frightening for very good reasons. You’re happy with your life right now. But even if you don’t get a job offer, or you get one and you decide to turn it down, you will have reaffirmed your love of the life you’re living. You also know now that you could be making more money, and maybe it’s time to ask for a modest raise (while remaining realistic about the much higher cost of living and correlative higher salaries in the Bay Area).
The point is, you can do anything you want. You can fly out to the Bay Area and look at apartments and then decide you don’t want to move there. You can spend a day at your new job and then quit. You can spend a year at your new job and then quit. You can fly out, look at places, take the job, show up, make friends, love a lot about it, but then decide you’d rather live in the Midwest instead. Doing any of these things relies on your being open and allowing good and bad emotions to flow through you. It relies on your trusting yourself to make the right decision for you, no matter how it might look to someone else.
And once you know you’re in the driver’s seat, you can say to friends, “I’m trying this on for size, and I might come back if I don’t like it.” Somehow it helps me a lot to say, out loud, “I’m just having an adventure, trying out something new.” I don’t have to treat every experiment like it’s a lifelong commitment. I get to dabble. Plenty of people dabble. Just because I’m not a dabbler by nature doesn’t mean I don’t get to try out new things like other people do. I am the decider!
Another important thing to remember: There are no mistakes. Every bold decision you make serves to open your horizons to new possibilities. Sometimes unexpected thrills and love and beauty surge forth from these scary choices. Other times, you get a closer look and say to yourself, “I am repeatedly repelled by this, and even though I don’t know why, I’m just going to say, NO FUCK THIS I’M GOING BACK HOME.” There is no “But people will think I’m a flake!” If you’re someone with skills who was approached out of the blue with a job offer, and you were romanced into taking it, and then you decided you wanted to quit? That doesn’t make you a flake. That makes you a sought-after, skilled human behaving rationally.
But also: Fuck what people think. You’re the decider.
The kinds of people who bray endlessly about how your various life choices will look on your résumé are the kinds of people who tend to have pretty limited, predictable, unexceptional careers. People with a lot of power and a lot of choices tend to applaud wild choices made by talented people.
That said, I would take the value of a new experience seriously. It could open a lot of doors. But I wouldn’t treat a big pile of money as the deciding factor in almost any decision, honestly. That probably sounds very privileged. I have been deep in debt and still avoided allowing money to make my career decisions for me, many times, and that’s worked out well for me personally. Again, probably privileged. But the Bay Area is very expensive, and you probably won’t feel that rich there even if they unload the money truck onto your lap. Most of all, though, from what you write about your life in your letter, money isn’t a high priority for you, so you shouldn’t pressure yourself into changing your priorities just to suit what other people think is important or valuable.
More than anything else, though, you have to tune in to your deepest feelings as you explore this possibility. That means refusing to listen only to your fear. Your fear will tend to whisper in your ear, “Oh God, it’s foggy in Sunnydale, you hate this place with every bone in your body!” It takes a few days for your fear to separate itself from your truest desires and reactions to the world around you.
It’s also a mistake to assume that you can only be happy under the most optimal conditions. I’ve told an outdated story about my limitations for too long, and it no longer applies. When I say that I’m someone who NEEDS to work from home, who CAN’T do otherwise, that’s my past, uncertain, depressed self I’m talking about. That was a person who searched other people’s faces for a verdict on whether or not I was performing up to their standards. That was a person who felt sure that only two or three people in the whole world could understand me. I’ve opened up and learned that there are people who make sense to me all over the place, and getting to know them has transformed my ideas of myself and the world. It’s made me much more adventurous and less fearful.
But it’s also smart to notice when you have strong opinions and preferences about where you want to live and what you want to do with your life, even when you wish you didn’t. My husband got a job offer once that would’ve meant relocating to a gorgeous mountain town notorious for its intoxicatingly perfect lifestyle. This town is so adored and sought after that human beings with giant stacks of money and no need to work at all move there, just to soak in its natural good looks and plucky charms. They move there so they can sip kombucha as they stroll through those pristine streets in their overpriced rubber clogs, raving about the majestic hills they saw on their latest trek or ski trip or mountain-biking outing or picnic.
When my husband got this job offer, I was very tired of L.A. There was smoke and smog in the air for an entire month as a gigantic fire raged in the hills near our house. My kids seemed destined to spend their lives in a cramped, ramshackle hut with no A/C, or crouched on the concrete playground of their half-assed day-care center, eating off-brand Ritz crackers and playing with plastic Disney princess figurines. I felt guilty for the crappy life I had to offer them. I worried about the essential flawed character of L.A., as I saw it then. My husband felt the same way. We sat in traffic and complained a lot. We wondered how we had ever landed in such a stupid dystopian hellhole.
Yet, when I visited that perfect, gorgeous town, every cell of my being cried out, “Noooooooo!” We sat in lush, green city parks that were maintained as well as most private golf courses, and spoke with relaxed white people about their mandolin lessons, and we sipped red wine at perfectly appointed, four-bedroom houses inhabited by calm, centered, thoughtful academics who couldn’t say enough good things about the university and the affordability of four-bedroom houses in that charming town. But every second all I could think was, “I will die if I move here.” I knew that I would be unhappy in that place. I don’t think this was just fear. I knew in my bones that it was not the place for me. I wasn’t even curious about it. (You know how you can hate a place a little but you’re still curious? I wasn’t interested. I was instantly bored.) On the ride home, I spent three hours describing to my husband all of the ways we would be tortured by living in that pretty place, as if calm, middle-aged, white hippies who ski and play the mandolin were actually violent thugs from the Dark Ages, determined to disembowel us and throw our intestines to a pack of wild dogs.
Why did I have such an extreme view of that place? It wasn’t that different from the small town where I grew up. I could tell you something about the predominance of rich white people in that mountain town, and explore the multitude of ways I fear and loathe places with a predominance of rich white people who, in particular, ski and mountain bike instead of, say, watch TV or play video games or drink gin or any of the many things I do that aren’t remotely admirable or healthy or arguably worthwhile. But the bottom line is, I know myself and I trust myself. And even though my kids might’ve breathed cleaner air and seen prettier sights there, I felt strongly that they wouldn’t have had childhoods that were quite as interesting or challenging there, among the serene whites draped in tasteful linen, nodding appreciatively and never talking out of line. I did not want that life for myself or for my husband or for my kids. Whatever it
was — fear, self-hatred, insecurity, free-floating dread of growing old in a small, smug place — I knew in my heart it was wrong for me and also maybe for us as a family.
No one should fear big opportunities, though it’s natural to do so. And you won’t fear this one, as soon as you resolve to trust yourself. You should go with an open mind, but be sure to listen to your heart, too. You’ll gain a lot by trying it on for size. When I think of that town, I feel happy. I didn’t know that L.A. made so much sense to me until I visited there. I didn’t know how much I loved compromised, crowded, concrete places packed with unruly humans and strip malls and really good guacamole. I didn’t know that I liked a little scrappy chaos around me at all times, even in the suburbs.
You never really know what will make you happy until you try a bunch of things. All you can do is feel your way forward. Take satisfaction in the fact that you are valued. And do exactly what you want, every single step of the way. There are no mistakes. Enjoy this experiment, and change your mind any time you want.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.