Assuming you have a non-writing professional background, have you ever blamed it for those moments in the writing life when your courage deserts you?
If not, perhaps you should reconsider.*
The topic I want to noodle on today is one sparked by an online article I read some years ago and wish I could cite. (If you know the post I refer to, please leave me a comment so I can give the author credit!) Alas, all that remains with me is the core idea: that certain types of occupational training, especially training connected to professions like law and medicine, invite caution and steadiness, making it harder to enter the entrepreneurial mindset or take creative leaps.
This idea struck me forcefully at the time and felt deeply true. It also led to a number of discouraging thoughts. (I already struggle against introversion and a nature that defaults to reflection, rather than action. Now I’m to fight 21 years of super-reinforced training?)
Fortunately, it didn’t take long until I saw the counterbalancing argument—the side of hope. For if one can be trained into a state of over-caution, one can presumably be trained out of it. (More on how to deprogram yourself in a bit.)
First, is there any evidence to support this idea?
I’m not aware of any academic studies, so I put out a call on Facebook, asking if other careers had a system to formalize caution. Here are some of the replies:
From Priya Gill : In engineering we use “fail safe” positions so everything is designed such that if it fails it would go to the position of safety. So lights would turn off and systems shut down upon failure rather than staying on and put everything and everyone in danger.”
Terri Lynn Coop mentioned the voluntary oath she took upon graduating. In part, it contains this text: “I am an Engineer. In my profession I take deep pride. To it, I owe solemn obligations… As an Engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.”
D.A. Winsor, an academician by day and writer by night, provided an example of the ethical considerations which go into any kind of academic research. One quote: “The design of the research should be such that all risks are minimized as much as possible, and that any remaining risks are clearly identified to participants so that they may make an informed choice about whether or not to participate…”
And then of course there’s my own contribution. Medicine. A land of high-level contradictions and the Mother of All Risk-Avoidant Professions.
Consider that, to become a doctor, you must adopt:
- a suitable wardrobe, including standardized uniforms and equipment to signify your level of education.
- medical language
- best practices, which can be ritualized to the point they resemble a choreographed dance (eg. How to scrub for OR, how to run a code.)
- illegible handwriting
- most of all, a mindset about risk in a landscape that is oriented to highlighting pathology and danger, rather than strengths.
I know of no better example than First Do No Harm.
Think about that principle for a second. First Do No Harm. When a doctor weighs the potential risks and benefits of a treatment, if he/she can’t be assured of a positive outcome, even in the face of suffering, they are expected to default to inaction.
Further, the courts and governing bodies are not especially kind to medical innovators, or those who would make intuitive leaps and provide off-label treatments.
A Brief Disclaimer
Please note, I’m not trying to say that writing and entrepreneurship require a manic commitment to incaution. But people who write about Resistance, like Seth Godin or Stephen Pressfield, often advocate for a ready-fire-aim worldview, whereas in medicine, the approach might be described as ready-research-aim-consult-aim-aim-fire.
In writing, what might this learned caution look like?
- You hold back on the page—you don’t go there when there is what excites you, and might set your work apart.
- When told your protagonist might alienate readers because of a certain quality, you smooth out their unlikeable edges rather than unearth another trait which would render them compelling and memorable, if controversial.
- You don’t seize an opportunity to connect and collaborate when you yearn to do just that.
- Your work never manages to get completed/ sent/ published/ critiqued for reasons you know in your heart could be swept aside.
- In general, you are reluctant to dance on the razor’s edge.