One of the most popular posts I wrote last year was “Why I’m leaving academia.” In the post, I explained why I decided to resign my full professorship and make this year my last in academia.
I’ve been a professor for 11 years. I have tenure, which comes with a guaranteed paycheck—for life.
Even as I ventured into other fields—like writing books about rocket science and giving keynotes to businesses—I considered academia an important safety net. If those other ventures didn’t pan out, I’d always have the security of tenure to catch me when I fell.
For that reason alone, I thought I’d never leave academia.
Until last year. In the great pause the pandemic forced upon the world, I had an epiphany.
I realized that my safety net had become a straitjacket.
I had been performing the same routine over the same safety net for over a decade. I was teaching the same classes, answering the same questions, and attending the same committee meetings. My job had become comfortable—too comfortable. I had stopped learning and growing.
As long as I kept one foot in academia, I would remain tethered. I couldn’t fully make the leap to other fields because my academic commitments were depleting my limited supply of time and creative energy.
In other words, the same net that once provided me safety and comfort—the same career that I once loved—was now confining me.
A safety net that’s there to catch you can also restrain you. It can make you believe that you’re safe only above the net. Play only over here, not over there. Stop taking healthy risks and avoid new leaps the net can’t support.
What’s more, the safety that the net provides can prove to be an illusion. Our safety nets have a way of disappearing at the worst possible moment. I’ve seen too many “stable” corporate jobs disappear with zero warning to know there’s no such thing as a guaranteed paycheck.
Yet we cling to the safety net, even when it no longer serves us.. We stick to a job that’s great on paper but is soul-sucking in practice. We forge ahead with a dysfunctional relationship, refusing to recognize that it isn’t working out.
We find ourselves unable to leave what we’ve outgrown.
So many of the safety nets in my life felt practical, but were in fact woven from fear. In other words, it wasn’t security or stability that kept me clinging to the net. That was just the story I was telling myself.
Rather, it was fear. Fear of letting go. Fear of abandoning the title of lawyer or professor or senior director. Fear of not knowing who I would be without the safety net that had come to define and ultimately confine me.
To be clear, you shouldn’t jump blindly off a cliff and hope that you grow wings on the way down. When you’re practicing untested and dangerous maneuvers, it can make sense to have a net. I didn’t mindlessly jump into popular writing and speaking. It was only after I achieved some level of success in both areas that I decided to leave academia.
I’ve also learned to trust myself. Where a new maneuver isn’t too risky—for example, when a decision I’m about to make is reversible—I know that I don’t need a net. If I fall, I can get back up.
By all means, if your safety net isn’t confining you—if it still serves you and fuels what you’re doing—keep it.
But if you find that your safety net has morphed into a straitjacket—if its comforting embrace has come to suffocate you—then free yourself from its grip, thank it for its service, and let it go.