This 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…”