Career Change and the Illusion of Safety

by Sep 16, 2014Career Design7 comments

Y ou decided to do what?!” he asked incredulously.

I had just signed up for a “walking with wolves” experience. When my husband started quizzing me on the details (Are they in cages? Do you actually touch them?), I realized I didn’t know much more than the vague information on the hotel lobby flyer. Even the directions were hazy:

Travel into the village. After passing a couple of houses take a left turn into a small lane marked by a no through road sign and a red post box. Look for a barn on the right hand side of the road next to a Cherry Tree set into a small grass island. Turn right at the Cherry Tree and drive down the track to the very end.

This was England, however, where houses often have names instead of numbers and directions lean towards the archaic. “I’m sure this is going be great,” I reassured my friend as we bumped along the dirt track.

But I was nervous.

When we arrived, we found a couple talking earnestly to a woman dressed in khakis, presumably the guide. The woman turned out to be an animal fanatic like me, while her husband thought the whole idea was crazy, like mine. He elected to stay in the car and await our return.

The guide motioned that we should all get into her truck. I had no idea where we might be going next. As my friend and I climbed in the back seat, I noticed a window that allowed one to see back into the enclosed truck bed. Two large snouts were pressed up against the glass.

I looked at my friend with wide eyes. “Are those wolves?” I mouthed. She started laughing nervously.

Close up snoutClick display images to see a cute wolf mug

The guide regaled us with fascinating details of wolf behavior as we drove. She made no mention of the creatures in the back of the truck.

After about 20 minutes of winding among farms and cute little villages, we arrived at a small plot of land that used to serve as a paintball camp. The area was maybe 5 or 10 acres, with wooden blinds scattered here and there that paintballers presumably used to hide behind.

The four of us got out and walked to the tailgate of the truck. We learned we’d actually be walking with wolf-dog hybrids, in this case, a breed with the largest percentage of wolf allowed in the UK. She instructed us to put our hands to the grate so the wolf-dogs could sniff our hands, which was her way of communicating that we were momentary members of the pack. One of them licked my fingers.

“In the wild, wolves determine your place in the pack by sticking their tongues into your mouth. But you shouldn’t let them do that to you.” My eyes got wide.

“Just how should we prevent them,” I asked.

“If one of the wolves tries to jump up on you, just put the palm of your hand on top of their head with a gentle pressure. That will stop them.”

Before I could ask another question, the gate to the truck opened and the wolves bounded out.

The magic of setting yourself free from fear

In its excitement, one jostled past me and I nearly toppled over. The wolves were massive. I tried to imagine having the courage to push them off me, if such a feat was even possible. The blood had drained from my friend’s face. She looked like she might pass out from fright.

“Do you want to wait in the truck?” I whispered to her. She shook her head no.

The guide put the alpha on a leash because she’d had trouble with them killing deer on the property. “They are such amazing hunters,” she told us. “They can hear a deer’s heartbeat from really far away. But as long as the alpha doesn’t go, the other won’t go too far.”

The wolves were surprisingly uninterested in their temporary pack members. They mostly played with each other or loped along the path, turning sharply as a sheep’s bleat rang out. Every time the beta disappeared into the brush and returned, I expected to see some mangled animal in his jaws, but it never happened.

The guide explained that wolves were actually less aggressive towards humans than dogs. While they didn’t have any interest in pleasing us, as dogs might, nor did they feel threatened (probably because they each weighed 200 pounds and weren’t done growing yet).

I started to relax. When we got to a pond and she released the alpha from his leash, the wolves utterly ignored us except to hide behind us as if we were trees. For the first time, I let myself fully experience what I’d come here for: to experience the wild in a way you ordinarily cannot.

There is a difference between observing the wild and experiencing it firsthand. It was thrilling.

wolf in waterMajestic doesn’t describe it (click display images)

The irony of the unexpected

As we walked back to the truck, which was parked just inside a cattle gate beside the road, our guide announced it was time to take pictures. The woman who accompanied us said her husband had loaned her his expensive camera just this once, since it was an experience of a lifetime. The guide put both wolves on a leash and handed them to the woman. The guide took the expensive camera and started snapping away.

I was jealous I didn’t get to go first, but I couldn’t argue the need to put the husband’s expensive camera to use. The wolves were surprisingly still. Both stood next to the woman, quiet and rapt.

In the distance, we heard a strange noise. The guide paused from her picture taking, then hurriedly said she needed to take the wolves back. She struggled to disentangle herself from the camera strap while simultaneously taking the leashes.

Before the guide could get a good grip on both leashes, the wolves bolted.

A cyclist had come speeding down the road in front of us and the wolves took off in pursuit of what they thought might be prey. The guide, surprised and and still struggling for a good handhold, was immediately pulled over and dragged along her stomach while screaming, gutturally, for them to stop. We couldn’t tell if it was panic or pain we heard in her voice, or both.

At some point, the wolves noticed the weight they were hauling and stopped to see what it was. When they realized the pack leader was on the ground, they came bounding back, alternately jumping over her now crouched form while nipping at her exposed neck.

It was a strange moment. I was afraid, but not for my personal safety. I had no idea what happened when the pack leader went down, but I felt confident the wolves didn’t much care about me.

The guide eventually got things under control and loaded the wolves back into the truck. There wouldn’t be any more picture taking.

“What if they had gotten away from you?” I asked. “What would have happened to that cyclist?”

“I don’t want to think about it,” she grimaced.

On the drive back, we passed the unwitting cyclist, loading his bike into the trunk of his car. To him, it was another great ride through the countryside.

But we knew he’d come close to an encounter so horrible, none of us wanted to imagine it.

How ironic that I’d felt so safe walking with wolves (an activity two out of two husbands thought insane), while a cyclist spending a quiet day in the countryside had nearly had the fright of his life.

The benefits of walking on the wild side

What feels risky may be safe, what feels safe may be risky.

You’re afraid of quitting your job and having no path back if things don’t work out. You’re afraid of the disapproving looks your colleagues will give you as you walk out the door and into the unknown. You’re afraid of dreaming big and falling flat on your face.

So you do nothing and tell yourself it’s safer that way.

What this experience taught me is that safety is largely an illusion. Safety is a good dream, but a dream nonetheless.

Which means it isn’t meant to be the cornerstone of your decision making.

Joy, fulfillment, excitement, love—the sources of those emotions may change, but they’re real. You’ll never be mistaken about their presence in your life. So why not follow them and see where they lead you?

After all, how many people make your list of heroes for their commitment to being responsible?

As William Shedd put it, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

Forget playing it safe.

I’d rather walk with the wolves any day.


Editor’s Note: The No Regrets Career Academy is opening soon after a one and a half year hiatus. Interested? Sign up here for all the details.