Elizabeth Keeler | Confessions of a Cliff-Jumper

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Elizabeth Keeler grew up on a farm in Raymond, Alberta, the second of eight children.  She holds a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from the University of Calgary, and a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of British Columbia.  She spent the last couple of years working as a business communications writer and teacher in Vancouver, BC.  She is currently pursuing her MBA at the Marriott School of Business at BYU.

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I don’t like extreme sports and I secretly despise people who fling themselves off cliffs in the name of leisure.  I take paranoid care of my body—I have only one chicken pox scar after 30 years in a gravitational field.  But, sometimes, when I ponder my life, I think I might be living my own version of insanity—call it “vocational cliff-jumping.”  My secret resume includes things as disparate as “pianist”, “lab chemist”, “dancer”, and “businesswoman.”  (I could throw in some other good ones, like “shoveller of dung” and “door-to-door makeup seller” but, to be fair, those weren’t career moves.)  I am constantly jumping headlong into the deep end of some new professional endeavour.  Let me further damage my credibility: I have moved 20 times to 13 cities in 4 countries in 3 continents attending 6 universities in 10 years.  Peripatetic, you might say.  “Geographic fix-it-itis” my friend’s mom diagnosed.  “You think moving from one thing to another will fix everything.”  I imagine the people speaking at my funeral saying things like: “She was confused.”  Or, “a nice girl, but her internal compass was way off.”

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There is often internal questioning as I embark on yet another life change.  What is wrong with me?  Why can’t I stay put?  Confusion and self-doubt have been a part of every transition.  Last year, as I was contemplating forging ahead with my MBA, the questions started again: When and where will I find my bliss?  This time I got an answer, and it shocked me.   You are living it, the voice came from deep, deep, you know, very deep inside me.  Pause.  Lighted bulb.  With sudden clarity I knew I was living my dream in total perfection: I am a self-decreed explorer.  I envisioned myself wearing a captain’s hat as I steered my lone ship across the tumultuous waters of the Atlantic, a modern-day  John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, or maybe even Columbus.

That sounds cocky.  It is a little.  In my defense, I think my compulsive need to explore is not ego-driven, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because I’m a flake, or because I should see my shrink to work out my commitment issues.  I simply have a strange, primal need to go over boundaries.  I am obsessed with these invisible borders, because they are signposts for what is unrealized.  Beyond boundaries lies the dark unknown, spaces I haven’t conquered; spaces that might conquer me.  Beyond boundaries are new ideas, new creation, the fascination and shock of the hitherto unexperienced.  Rather than walk on lighted circuits, I feel compelled to go to the dark spots and put my flag down.  Call me Captain Elizabeth.  (Indulge me.)

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While I admit there is fear associated with doing something outrageously new, fear is not my greatest deterrent to risk-taking.  My past life as a musician was like a life-time vaccination against fear.  I have yet to do anything as terrifying as play a Bach fugue for Professor Engle, who was known, on occasion, to mime cutting off my head.  I may experience terror frequently, but it’s more like an old, pesky friend.  No, my greatest deterrent, by far, is guilt.  Guilt has accompanied every life change I’ve made.  It’s as if there are voices telling me that changing makes me fickle, weak, or abnormal.  Perhaps it’s the age-old view that incontinence and irrationality are bound up in my femininity.  Changing my mind is weak, a modern-day instance of fainting in my corset.  The proper thing to do is to be still, stable, responsible.  Don’t change, don’t move, be dependable, be who you’ve always been, be found in the same space as before.

Sometimes guilt is justified, but I have searched my soul about the wrongs of cliff-jumping, and I believe the guilt is ill-founded.  If I had acted in perfect accordance with my inherited social conscience, I would be living in rural Canada celebrating my twelve-year wedding anniversary with my husband, cows, dogs, and kids.  That may be right for some, but it would have been wrong for me, a sure recipe for socially-guilt-free misery.  So what’s the deal with my guilt?  I could expostulate on how women have historically not been risk-takers, positing ill-formed theories of cave women defending their little ones while their husbands were out bush-whacking.  But I don’t really know.  Perhaps there are evolutionary reasons for the guilt of adventure, but one thing is for sure: the flip side of the guilt-coin is stagnation.  To me, that’s the real danger.  I asked Google and it confirmed my suspicions:

“The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing.

[She] may avoid suffering and sorrow, but [she] simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.”  (Leo Buscaglia)

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Source:  istockphoto

So, while I am perplexed by the guilt, ever-present as it is, the Captain in me insists I sail in spite of it.  This week’s expedition was to enroll in the advanced private equity class offered next term.  As a classmate graciously pointed out, it’s laughable how little business I have being there.  However, what I know from being an experienced jumper is that after terror comes exhilaration, and if I’m lucky, ecstasy – the ultimate reward.

To be clear, I am not promoting that people change jobs every year for the rest of their lives (heaven forbid).  I am merely shamelessly advocating headlong, plummeting, frontier-busting, head-shaking, free-falling adventure, however that looks, because it’s worth it.  I don’t know about you, but I intend to keep up my dirty little habit of cliff-jumping for a very long time, even at the risk of a confusing epitaph on my tombstone.

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Not infrequently I hear it said women are risk-averse.  In one sense I think that's true.  As I looked for photos of cliff jumping women, they were hard to find.  My experience, however, has been that women are actually willing to take pretty big risks.  Like Elizabeth is willing to do.

What is the most thrilling thing you've ever done?  Wasn't there actually a lot of risk involved?

Couldn't you argue that getting married is a pretty risky thing?  And if you happen to be a stay-at-home mother reliant on your husband's income, isn't that taking a risk?  What about birthing a baby?

For more on exploration, you may want to read Eva Koleva Timothy's Lost in Learning.

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