I Flipped a Coin to Make the Biggest Career Decision of My Life

You could, too.

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Image by David Bruyland from Pixabay
Image by David Bruyland from Pixabay
Image by David Bruyland from Pixabay

July, 1987. Cleveland, Ohio. 3:00am. I am standing in the basement of my parent’s house, hanging up the heavy handle of the black rotary phone on the wall. The last of my friends on the West Coast have finally gone to bed.

I can no longer press them for their unvarnished opinions on what I should do when the sun comes up: accept a job as an Admissions Officer at Stanford University? Or go to New York City to be an actor? What to do?

Earlier that day, Jean Fetter, Dean of Admissions at the time, had called me. “We’d love to have you join us, Mary,” she had said, in her silky British accent. After multiple rounds of interviews and an exhaustive vetting process, I was hungry for approval. Her words were velvet cake.

I had asked Dean Jean to give me one day to think about it, which she had graciously granted. So now here I am, thinking about it. Constantly.

It’s a great job, well-paying by 1987 standards, at the college I love. I can see myself talking with prospective students, traveling around the country, reading applications. It’s a sure thing, or as sure a thing as I could ask for, as a newly-minted graduate.

Yet at the same time, I am pulled toward the theatre: I love to act. I love improv. I love to write plays. And I admit with no irony whatsoever: I love NYC.

Left to my own vacillation, I am panicking. I have asked everyone who knows me well to tell me what to do. My eldest sister has said today that somewhere deep inside me, I know what the right path is. That if I just get quiet enough, that knowledge will bubble up to the surface.

Yeah, right. I suspect this is a new-agey way to avoid telling me what she really thinks.

My parents, somewhat predictably, are solidly in the “take the job offer and run” camp. After all, they were instrumental in my choice of English over Drama as a major, citing its practicality and usefulness. (This is a view I will later find to be highly amusing.)

As I stand in my basement and ponder my two options, I am stymied. I can see myself being happy in either circumstance. In my state of pure ambivalence, I chew on the pros and cons, again and again and again.

Security but predictability? Creativity but uncertainty? How can I possibly choose between them? Who else is awake? Whom (English major, remember?) can I call to get his or her two cents?

Two cents… wait a minute…

If it’s true that I can be happy pursuing either path, then why not let chance decide for me? In the absence of a higher authority, I do the only sensible thing: I flip a coin.

I find a dime in my jeans pocket and balance it on my thumbnail. Tails, NYC. Heads, Admissions. I breathe deeply, and flick it.

Up it goes, flittering like a silver moth drawn to the naked light bulb above my head. Eons pass. It lands in my sweaty outstretched palm…


In that instant, my passion reveals itself to me, in all its thrilling, frightening glory. I know what I must do.

It’s almost dawn, and I’m too excited to sleep. In a few hours, I will break the news to my parents: I’m packing my duffle and heading to New York.

Fast-forward a few decades. Three, exactly.

Turns out my new-agey sister was right. I did know, somewhere deep inside. We all do. We all know the path of the heart; we just have a hard time accessing it. Sifting through thick layers of societal conditioning — often in the form of advice from teachers, parents, and friends, even the most well-meaning of them — takes time.

Or it takes a tool that razors though it all in the flick of a thumb. I like dimes, but any coin will do.

There is a sleight of mind that must happen for it to work, a temporary “make believe” moment. You must really surrender your power of control to that of the coin; you must believe, with all your being, that the coin’s decision is permanent. Tell yourself that you will do what it tells you. If you don’t take the edict seriously, it won’t work.

If you do, however, then it will. When the deed is done and your path has been handed to you, you will know if it’s the right one. For some, it’s an inner voice that whispers “hurray!” or “wow, I get to do that?”; for others, it’s a body-feeling of true wellness, relief, solidity…or a feeling of “all’s right with the world.”

The wrong path will elicit whispers of “really?” or “are you sure?” or in my case, “Rats.” In the body, it might show up as a subtle constriction somewhere, an anxiety, or even a resigned exhale. Pay attention. This is wisdom.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost

Notice that Frost did not say, “And that has made me fabulously wealthy and happy all the time.” No, choosing the road less traveled has simply “made all the difference.” In my life, the decision to follow my heart has made all the difference.

Security but predictability? Creativity but uncertainty? I laugh, knowing what I know now. Security is a seductive mirage, as is predictability. And creativity — that’s a life-long daily choice, not an “unstable” career move.

Who I am today has been shaped — painfully at times — by the paths (and the detours) I have taken. I did not become a “household name” actor. I did not “make it” in the popular sense of the concept.

But I can look back with zero regret, knowing that I followed my dream — which led me to a writing career, a wonderful husband, and a family that gives me infinite joy. I am not the same person who flipped that dime 30 years ago, and for that I am steadily grateful.

July, 1987. Cleveland, Ohio. 8:30am. I have just told my parents of my decision. My mother sighs a small, sad sigh and then hugs me — her signature show of disapproving acceptance. But my father, bless his heart, reacts in a way I don’t see coming. Tears fill his bright blue eyes, and he says, “I’m so proud of you.”

We come to crossroads every day. Some of them are earth-shattering, others are not. My advice? Bring lots of change with you…

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