Take Calculated Risks

itemThis post is an elaboration of #5 from a list of things I learned early in life.


Some enjoy taking risks that are largely uncalculated. These people are usually called teenagers. As we grow older, we usually settle warmly into the predictable. I’d like to suggest that shaking up our comfort zones a bit more often will result in experiences that will be much appreciated later on in life. Charles Dubois said,

The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.

This is not operating on blind risk in which we ski down an unexamined slope at top speed. Blind risk has its own pleasures, but is not an optimal modus operandi for most of life’s larger domains.

Incorporating a healthy level of risk requires knowledge of self, environment and the causal relationship between the two. When I first came to Tokyo 10 years ago, I had $200 in my pocket and no job. However, due in part to the master’s degree I had just picked up, I was working within 5 days. When I ventured deep into the mountains of Mexico a couple decades back, I did not know what to expect, but prior to the adventure, I took an advanced first aid course, and had “roughed it” frequently in the US. When I headed back to university after my divorce, I knew that it would be challenging to keep up with supporting my 3 kids while also paying for school. However, I resigned myself to do what it would take, including living in an economical scholarship hall with 50 nerds much younger than I was. So assessing who you are and who you can become is the first step of the process. The next step is to assess your environment, and the final step is to actually take action.

For many, this last step is rather daunting. The fear of failure can paralyze even the most competent. I know this well. I used to be quite shy. This is one area in which I was extremely risk-adverse. I had to consciously place one foot in front of the other to walk over to a pretty girl sitting alone. I had to force myself to do this every day until I realized I was no longer conscious of my feet, hands or voice, and became comfortable just being myself around anyone. There were many significant failures. But I quickly learned to assess these failures for any lessons, and simply continue.

The benefits of taking risks are underestimated. Continually placing yourself in a novel social contexts, for example, will inevitably lead to some unexpected work and romantic relationships. These benefits cannot be foreseen, and so are often not included in the calculation. It is only after regularly experiencing these positive events that they move from being unexpected to merely unpredictable.

I seldom hear regret from those who have taken risks. At minimum, they have learned something. And there is no clear upper limit to the possible rewards. At the end of my life, I hope there to be very few memories upon which I’ll reflect “If only I had…”


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2 thoughts on “Take Calculated Risks

  1. Zachary Gilmartin says:

    This was personally a really motivational piece for me to read. I’m so glad that you were conscious enough about your life to inform others of your experiences with risk and adventure. The feeling I have right now is equivalent to waking up from a dream, and realizing the excitement that life has to offer again. I’m currently at school right now working on a computer science undergraduate degree, but recently been contemplating the idea of leaving the united states to live in japan to explore what the world really has to offer. I am overcome by your ability to transcend your environmental limitations, and the social adversity you faced (ie. children, schooling, and social stigmas) to achieve a new perspective on the world. You are are truly an inspiration.

    Two years ago I left the United States and stayed in Japan for two month on 1,000 dollars. It was the greatest experience of my life to date. There were no plans or schedules just the thrill and anticipation of what was to come next. After reading your article, you have reignited my beliefe in the potencial of creating your own destiny in this world, and not being subjected to the monotonous environment in which you are born. Thank you for your help and advice. I look forward to reading more of your intriguing articles.

    I have a few quick questions. Do you speak japanese? If not, was is difficult for you to adapt to the environment?

    • Thanks Zachary,

      Actually, I do not speak much Japanese, and this has not really been a handicap during my 11 years in Japan. With the time I would have spent learning Japanese, I invested in learning programming (I programmed here for 1 year), and art (I have 2 consecutive art exhibits going on now). Tokyo is fine for those who do not know Japanese. However, for those wishing to live in a more rural area of Japan, I do suggest making the investment.

      Cheers, Phil

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