Thursday, February 15, 2007

Why we take risks

"I haven't failed; I've found 10,000 ways that don't work."

-Thomas Edison

Growth. It's a hard thing to pin down, how we change, adapt, and grow. It's a process that happens organically; one over which we have no direct control. We develop in ways we never would have predicted and could never have directed. It is a combination of who we are, and the experiences we encounter that change us; while we cannot change how those experiences will alter who we are, we do have some control over which experiences we encounter.

Every day we are presented with choices; every day we are presented with risks. And with every risk comes a gut reaction. Our instincts leads us in one direction. But just as we no longer rely on a purely "fight or flight" instinct to decide on the best course of action in every scenario, neither can we delegate to our gut reactions every daily decision, every risk-taking.

Just like fear, risk is good, but often scary. A lot of the time, we let our fear make our decisions for us; we avoid risk, because we're too scared of the outcome to take chances. But, as with fear, it would often be to our advantage to take more risks. Because we learn from each experience, whether or not it achieves the goals we'd hoped for. To paraphrase Robert Frost, when we take the road less traveled, we are all the better for it. Because we have a width and depth of experiences unparalleled by those who choose safety by default.

Our experiences are a map from who we were to who we are and will be; we are the people that our experiences have made us into. And with a richer mosaic of experiences, we become more-developed, more-diverse people. We cannot learn about ourselves and our world without experiencing many things; more specifically, we cannot grow without experiencing some failure, some disappointment.

We will often shy away from risk for fear of being hurt. This is doubly true with emotional risk, as it is those cuts which go deepest. But the irony is that it is those experiences that most augment ourselves, making us into better, stronger people. It is all too easy to shut out everything new, everything we "think" we don't like; it's much harder to try something we have convinced ourselves we won't like and see what happens. It seems counterintuitive that getting hurt can make you stronger, that failing can make you more likely to succeed in the future; but this is the very nature of personal growth.

I should clarify by saying that not every risk should be taken. Jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, while undoubtedly an eye-opening experience, is a risk with very significant downsides and little benefit. But when an opportunity presents itself that we find ourselves greeting with apprehension, it is important to consider that this might just be one of those risks that we need to lead us down the path of enlightenment and improvement. And those are the risks we should always take. Because without it, we will never grow, and will forever live in the shadow of what might have been, had we merely had the force of will to try. When we try new things, we never wonder "what if", because we already know the answer.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream."

-Mark Twain

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been searching out definitions of "risk" and trying to make sense of what it actually means. Most of what's out there is focused on extreme sports, reckless gambling, and dopamine. Then I found your blog. I was immediately struck by your wisdom - the wisdom that only comes from experience. Thank you.