Q: This guy recently moved into my apartment building, and we seem to have a spark. I’d like to go out with him. However, because we live in the same building, this might be a bad idea. If it goes badly, things could get really awkward or even horrible. Should I just try to forget about him? —Tempted
Let’s just say this has some negative potential — along the lines of throwing back a bottle of pinot noir all by yourself and then deciding to cut your bangs at 1 a.m.
Though going for it with this guy could go seriously wrong, there’s also the potential for it to go seriously right. Risk can be a path to reward (whereas avoiding it is unlikely to lead to a shiny new boyfriend suddenly sliding down your chimney, Santa-style).
To figure out whether you can afford the risk, apply a concept from economic psychology: “Risk tolerance.” This is a term for how much stomach somebody has for the possible loss of an investment they make — all their dollars leaping out of it and swan-diving en masse into a toilet, with the final straggling dollar kicking the flusher on its way down.
Essential to determining your risk tolerance is figuring out the possible costs if a thing between you and this guy goes all crashy-burn. For example, there could be financial costs if you end up needing to move. You should also factor in your tolerance for drama, like embarrassing public encounters with a Mr. Romantic turned Mr. Should Be In A Jacket With A Lotta Buckles. Also consider your fiscal and emotional fortitude for what psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham called “unknown unknowns”: crazy stuff most of us just wouldn’t imagine happening, like much of the adult world getting grounded by the government.
If you decide to give it a go with him, consider taking things slowly. This is generally prudent but especially so when you could have a stalker who doesn’t have to follow you home because he lives there, too. If you’re like me, you love to make an interesting entrance, but that probably doesn’t include getting into your apartment via rope ladder.
Love In The Paycheck Republic
Q: I’m a 20-year-old girl with a big crush on my very cute boy co-worker. Day after day, week after week, I want to invite him out for drinks, but then I chicken out. I ask myself all the usual questions, like, “What if he says no, and work gets embarrassing?” and, “What if he tells the boss, and then I get fired?” —Procrastinating Endlessly
You’d be asking him to go for drinks, not asking him to straddle you in the staff restroom.
Unless there’s a policy forbidding co-workers from dating, asking this guy out should not lead to you and your job being forced to part company. Surely, you know that. Chances are your goal of asking the guy out is getting tangled up in your groping around for an excuse to avoid doing it.
This is understandable. The prospect of failing at a goal — especially a romantic goal — is stressful, but there’s a way to make failed efforts take less of a bite out of you. It turns out that in goal pursuit, there’s safety in numbers — in simultaneously pursuing a flock of goals rather than just one goal at a time. A single bird can get shot down, but it’s hard to shoot down a whole flock at once unless your weapon of choice is an alien death ray.
Consider replacing being goal-oriented with the broader approach: goal systems-oriented.
A goal is simply a result you’re trying for — a single result, like “get Joe Shelfstocker to go out with me.” The singularity is the problem. If Joe turns you down, you’ve failed at your goal. Hard out. Goal systems are more forgiving. While a goal is a lone target — win or lose, all or nothing — a goal system, as explained by social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, is a network of “interconnected goals.” A goal system would be, “Work toward having love in my life.” This goal system would be the home of your goal of getting a date with the guy, but it would take up residence with a bunch of brother, sister, and cousin goals, such as: Work on building up confidence. Get a cuter haircut. Go out more.
When you fail at a single goal, if it’s simply one of many in your goal system, you’ve got cushioning. Your failure is just a momentary bummer within a world of to-dos, at least some of which you’ll manage to pull off. Being goal-system-driven gives you the emotional air bag to go forward all “carpe diem!” — “seize the day!” — instead of downshifting to “cogit, ergo spud”: “I think I’ll act like a potato” (um, loosely translated).
Order Amy Alkon's new book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence," (St. Martin's Griffin, 2018).