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The Value of Playing the Edge

Pushing beyond your assumed limits is called edgework. Here's how to play it.

A friend recently told me that her therapist gave her an assignment to break one rule a day for two weeks, as long as it benefitted her work.

By “rule,” he meant the assumptions and formulas that orchestrate her relationship to doing business. He wanted her to step outside the comfort zone and take some chances, to realize that habits are habits because they tend to work, but they’re not the only way things can work, and they sometimes work against us. The rules, even the laws, we live by need occasional upgrading when they fail to deliver on their promises.

For instance, there are rules of engagement that are widely believed to make relationships work, and which we only break at our supposed peril, such as: never go to bed angry, always be 100 percent honest, the children come first, fighting is bad for love, marriage will end your loneliness, and having a baby will bring a couple closer.

But anyone who has spent time in actual relationships knows it ain’t necessarily so, and that there are plenty of exceptions to these beliefs and bylaws, some of which are in fact better off broken.

There are rules of engagement that are also believed to make businesses succeed, but which are sometimes bent to great effect. An example of this is the corporate practice of what’s called 20 percent time: one day out of the workweek during which employees are allowed to pursue any project their heart desires, as long as it ultimately benefits the company; an idea utilized by firms as large as Google, Oracle, 3M, and Hewlett-Packard.

Google’s 20 percent policy is known to have contributed to roughly half of its innovations, and billions of dollars in revenue, and has inspired the use of 20 percent time as an educational model, which isn’t surprising given that Google’s cofounders credit the implementation of 20 percent time to their experiences attending Montessori schools as children, where students are assumed to be capable of self-directed learning, and learn best through discovery. 20 percent time helps ensure that employees are passionate about their work, and passion clearly equals productivity.

In the natural world, the edge is where the action is. The zone between two ecosystems—water and land, or field and forest—is where the greatest diversity and productivity are found, as well as the most predation. This is fitting, as the Greek word for this region, an ecotone, means tension. But it’s characterized by a fertility that biologists call the edge effect.

In human affairs, the ecotone between the life you have and the life you want, between your status quo and your potential, is equally fruitful if not fitful, full of passion and suffering, productivity and predation. The exercise of pushing beyond your assumed limits into this zone of intensity and virility, in search of fulfillment and new possibilities, is rightfully referred to by sociologists as edgework.

It’s a kind of personal anarchy, an affirmative revolt against your own stuckness, as well as the entrapments and over-determined nature of everyday life (they don’t call it the “beaten” path for nothing). It’s not loss of control, though, but an acute sort of self-control, says Jeff Ferrell, author of Making Trouble. It’s self-control in place of control by others, whether church and state or job and gender, and it’s based on the understanding that if you don’t control yourself, somebody else will.

“It’s self-control for the sake of self-determination,” Ferrell says. “Self-control in the interest of holding on to your life while letting go of it. Self-control that gets you hooked on the autonomy of self-invention. It’s a defiant disavowal of secondhand living. It’s the refusal to live in a cage and have food thrown in.”

When days, weeks, and months, even years, pass without consequence, without registering so much as a blip on the Richter scale, it’s in your best interest to push a few boundaries and risk making some trouble, if not engage in some of those activities which guarantee that it will matter greatly how the next few seconds or minutes unfold. There’s no shortage: skydiving, whitewater rafting, bull-riding, heli-skiing, competitive sports, or for that matter asking someone on a date, coming out of the closet, or any fierce conversation in which whatever you say next could have a make-or-break effect.

I used to have a silver ring that a high school girlfriend gave me, which I wore well into my thirties, and I was in the habit of using it in a peculiar game of chance. From time to time I would slip it off and twirl it in my fingers while dangling it over some precipice—the edge of a cliff, the balcony of a highrise apartment, the side of a boat—just to play the edge and give myself a little thrill.

My penchant for playing I-dare-you with the ring all those years was a small attempt to keep life interesting and stay practiced at taking risks and involving myself in those activities where the next few moments really do matter (or at least living in such a way that I remember that every moment matters and every second counts).

The desire to explore the edge, to gain the rim and push ourselves out of our ruts, certainly helps explain the popularity of thrill-seeking, which may just be courage adapted for monotonous times, for an era when the demands on our physical courage are few.

Civilization is designed to minimize natural risks and stabilize the instabilities not just of nature but human nature, and as the screws have been tightened over time through legal and moral strictures, social and religious sanctions, urbanization and suburbanization, and litigiousness, risk takers and edgewalkers have been compelled to devise ever more outlets for their enthusiasms, what Paul Zweig in The Adventurer calls “small vertical escapes from the chain gang of our days.”

Thrill-sports are the kinds of adventure whose primary goal is a push toward The Limit. This is not literary adventure, not armchair adventure, not family adventure, not a vacation into which you throw in a little surfing or a zipline. This is the hunger to feel yourself vividly alive by stepping right up to the cage with the tiger in it. Or as I heard an ice-climber once say: "I open the door, see the Grim Reaper right there, but instead of just slamming the door, I push him back a few steps."

Death tends to make us shrink, timid and fearful, but it can provoke in some people the desire to push back, to stalk the stalker. They refuse to be in-timid-ated. They refuse to allow their courage and vitality to be worn threadbare by the clinging to comfort and security. The desire for adventure becomes the desire for revolt, not just against the fear of death or the understimulated life, but against a scaredy-cat culture that hides behind gates and guardrails, bailouts and subsidies, schools that eradicate playgrounds and dodgeball, and manufacturers that put warning labels on their products saying, “Do not iron clothes on body,” and “Wearing this Superman costume does not enable you to fly.”

And it seems that for every uptick in secondhand living, there’s a countervailing attempt to make the edge even edgier. Consider this ever-expanding list of thrill-sports: hurricane sea-kayaking, unicycle hockey, underwater rugby, chess boxing (alternating a round of boxing with a round of chess), fireball soccer (dousing a soccer ball with lighter fluid, setting it aflame, then playing ball with bare feet), and extreme ironing, in which you take an ironing board into a dangerous situation—rock climbing, scuba diving, even combat—and iron clothes, which, as its aficionados like to say, combines the thrill of an extreme sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.

Some people are thrill-seekers not just because they have a hunger to play the edge, but because they have that migratory gene-variant that some call “gene wild.”

There are roughly 1500 genes on chromosome #11, and one of them is the human dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4)—dopamine being a brain chemical implicated in pleasure and stimulation-seeking—and it’s referred to as the thrill-seeking gene, in addition to acting as something of a teaching aid to the brain in the acquisition of new behavior. (If you don’t possess the gene, or the inclination toward risk-taking, and want to increase your threshold for it, you can change the way your brain perceives risk by introducing it to a lot of small ones on a regular basis and building a tolerance for it.)

There are a number of variations of the gene, though, and which version you possess will determine whether you’re more at home with a 30-year-mortgage or a parachute-jump, more likely to build your house on a golf course or on the flanks of a volcano. One of these variations is called the exon III 7-repeat allele, which predisposes people to such behaviors as risk-taking, novelty-seeking. and ADD/ADHD.

However, the higher the dose of this variant you inherited, the more problematic everyday life is likely to be for you, since your threshold for the everyday is lower than others’. Having a Wilder Gene also predisposes you to boredom, job-dissatisfaction, alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, promiscuity, crime, a passion for horror movies, and political liberalism.

As for the ADHD link, people diagnosed with it are twice as likely to have the gene variant, but some of what we consider ADHD symptoms, like rapidly shifting focus and quick movements, may actually be survival traits that were selected for during our migration out of Africa. Evolution, it appears, may have latched onto a gene linked to risk-taking and adventurousness.

In fact, the primary evolutionary advantage of these behaviors comes down to exploration. Some members of any tribe, especially in new environments, have to investigate what’s dangerous and what’s not, and test the limits so that others will know what they are and either avoid them or exercise caution in approaching them. The explorer and aviator Charles Lindbergh rightly asked, “What civilization was not founded on adventure? Our earliest records tell of biting the apple and baiting the dragon, regardless of hardship or danger, and from this, perhaps, progress and civilization developed.”

Thus the importance of supporting the dragon-baiters, both in society and in ourselves. Of keeping alive the role of edgewalker, outlier, provocateur, and imagineer, the one who stands outside the shop window looking in and questioning; who lives in the liminal zone between civilized and wild, conformity and rebellion; who dives beneath the surface of life to its depths.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “civilized” society is defined by having five qualities: beauty, truth, art, peace and adventure, and that it preserves its vitality only as long as “it is nerved by the vigour to adventure beyond the safeties of the past. Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.” And the same goes for its civilians.

In The Charge, business trainer Brendon Burchard contends that real change, progress and accomplishment only come when we choose causes we deeply believe in and refuse to let ourselves be “neutered of any real desire or ambition by heeding the advice of the ‘realists’, who tell us to set SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound). But these types of attainable goals never spark the imagination or fire the will. You want to change? Then do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to settle on a vision or calling that is uninspiring.”

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