The motivating power of feeling as if what you do matters, and the collective power of working as part of a group, team, or community, are not new ideas. For years, I’ve had a little purple postcard posted to a bulletin board in my office with a quote by the anthropologist Margaret Mead that says, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And in terms of the motivating power of purpose, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, more than 100 years ago, that “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Come to think of it, as one of our guest essayists (Terry Tegnazian) wrote in her “I Do This Because …” post on this site, even the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead contained the prayer, “May I be given a God’s duty; a burden that matters.”

Humans are hard-wired to be working animals, and we do our best when we believe that our efforts matter. We’re also not well suited to be loners, despite the independent cowboy myth that runs through American culture. We get our greatest happiness, and also our greatest strength, from our connections with others.

Having said all that, the power of purpose and community are both huge subjects. So there’s always room for new perspectives, nuggets of information, or details on how those elements impact us. Take, for example, a recent study by a psychology researcher at the Yale-National University of Singapore. He wrote an essay about his results in The New York Times back in September. The piece was titled “Liking Work Really Matters.” But in reading it, I came to a different conclusion. It appears that the researchers looked at not just how enjoyable subjects thought a task would be (obviously, we focus better and do better at tasks we think are enjoyable), but also the impact on whether subjects thought the task at hand was important. And it’s the second part I believe is most important. [click to continue…]

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A friend of mine–an entrepreneur who pitched aeronautical engineering to become a philosophy grad student, pitched philosophy for medicine, and finally pitched medicine to make wine–says that when his kinds are worried about risking some new adventure or endeavor, he tells them, “Leap, and the net will appear.”

He’s certainly a poster child for the success of that approach. And there’s a lot to be said for just closing your eyes and making the leap. I say that in part because the actual leap, from known and comfortable to unknown and uncertain, is the hardest part of starting any new adventure or endeavor. And, of course, because once you’re off the cliff edge, you’re awfully motivated to figure out how to build a pair of wings before you hit the ground.

But there’s sometimes a fine line between bravery and recklessness. If you are a single parent with three kids depending on you for food, clothing, shelter and healthcare, perhaps abruptly up and quitting your day job to start over again as an actor–unless you have some other kind of income at your disposal-is a bit more reckless than brave.

Granted, that’s a bit of an extreme example. But the question it raises is real. If you’re thinking of trying a new path, job, or career, how do you decide when … and if … you should leap? It’s a tough question, because there’s no guaranteed right answer. That’s why those decisions and moves are called risky. Obviously, it helps to think possible options through ahead of time. Ask yourself, Do I have the skills and experience necessary to try this? Do I have any connections or possible clients/employers out there? Can I financially afford the risk? And, of course, the bottom line question at the end of the day … “What will I regret more? If I do this and fail, or if I don’t do this? Because in the end, nobody else can weigh out the potential risks and benefits for you. You can’t decide that a move is right. You have to decide if it’s right for you.

So I always find it interesting to talk to and read about people who’ve made those leaps, to see how they came to that choice. Take, for example, Tom Magliozzi, known to most people as half of the “Click and Clack” team of NPR’s “Car Talk.” Tom died two weeks ago, at the age of 77, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. But in addition to the basic facts, the obituary I read included part of a commencement speech the brothers had given at their college alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (or MIT), in 1999.

In the speech, Tom talked about how he’d gone from engineering to car maintenance, tracing the choice back to a “defining moment” he had on the way to work one morning. As the obituary put it, “Tom described driving on Route 128 to his job in Foxboro, Mass, in a little MG that ‘weighed about 50 pounds,’ when a semi-truck cut him off. Afterward, he thought about how pathetic it would have been if he had died having ’spent all my life, that I can remember at least, going to this job, living a life of quiet desperation. So I pulled up into the parking lot, walked in to my boss’s office and quit on the spot.’”

The article went on to say that Tom’s little brother Ray chimed in at that point in the speech and quipped, “‘Most people would have bought a bigger car.’”

Most people would have bought a bigger car. But for some reason, that near-brush with death tilted the balance of risk and reward so conclusively in favor of making the leap that Tom Magliozzi quit his job on the spot and started a car repair shop. My guess is that Tom already knew his passion was working on cars, not working as a chemical engineer in some big corporation. The almost-accident just reminded him that he didn’t have forever, or 10 lives, to waste on a path that wasn’t fun or fulfilling. I’d also wager that the choice Tom thought he was making was not to give up engineering for a radio career, but giving up a career as a chemical engineer to be a car mechanic.

By the way, for anyone who’s curious, the brothers did not leap immediately to fame and fortune. When Tom quit his job, the brothers started a do-it-yourself car repair shop in Cambridge, MA that evolved into a conventional repair shop called the “Good News Garage.” But when a local NPR station interviewed the brothers one day, their banter and humor so impressed the producers that they were invited to appear on a national radio show to talk about cars … a segment that evolved, eventually, into “Car Talk,” which ran for 35 years (and which NPR is still airing by re-running taped shows). Note to all potential leapers: when Car Talk debuted, Tom Magliozzi was 40 years old.

A second “leap” story that crossed my desk this week still has an unfinished ending. [click to continue…]

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