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The Dignity of Daring: On the Art of Taking Risks

13 principles about the fine and fearsome art of risk-taking

“The best works are those at the limits of life. They stand out among a thousand others when they prompt the remark: ‘What courage that must have taken!’ “ — Fernand Pouillon

1) In no arena of human ambition can you win or grow without taking a risk. The psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that self-actualizing types—those who tend to fulfill their potential—are those who make the growth choice over the fear choice, routinely.

2) Courage and risk are absolutely relative. These aren’t comparison games. What’s courageous to one person may be fainthearted to another. Risk is whatever scares you.

3) Courage means heart (from the French), as opposed to the usual body parts we associate with it: backbone, balls, guts, nerves. And it takes heart to stake a claim for yourself, stand up to the status quo, or take a flying leap of faith—to look straight into the dark gate of whatever’s unknown to you and know that your life won’t be complete and won’t make sense until you go through.

4) We love to quote the philosopher Goethe who said that “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” But we forget that he also said, “To put your ideas into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” But if you don’t, you risk building for yourself a velvet cage: the money’s good, the security comforting, the surroundings familiar—but you become only a recreational users of your passion and vitality.

5) The very act of risk-taking sets up an antagonism with the established order of things. In creating a life that honors your own integrity and authenticity, you may have to break rules, disappoint people, part ways with colleagues and friends, re-fashion your marriage vows, head against the prevailing winds. Jesus promised those who would follow him only three things, says writer Marty Babcock: “That they would be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.”

6) Risk-taking can become a disguised form of escape. Sometimes hanging in there, or exercising creativity within the status quo, is the better part of valor.

7) It’s important to determine whether a particular status quo in your life exists as a monument to the fear of change, or, conversely, whether risk-taking is a function of sheer restlessness and ennui. (I saw a cartoon recently showing two cheetahs chasing after a herd of impala. One says to the other, “I can never tell if I’m hungry or just bored.”) There’s nothing is inherently wrong with either scenario, but if you’re taking chances and making changes just for the sake of not standing still, your actions may be more about running away from something than toward something. Motion isn’t necessarily progress any more than noise is necessarily music.

8) As for progress, start small with risks, starting in your own backyard. “Where you are and one step,” a friend of mine once put it. Nothing says you have to tackle a risk in one jump, nor do calls and conundrums have a single right answer. They ask you to fashion some kind of response, but even a small one is still saying yes. The point is to move forward, however humbly, to take small risks and record your impressions.

9) Small risks, unfortunately, are always in danger of staying small, and practice can easily devolve into procrastination. There’s no end to the rehearsals you can make, the questions you can pose, the experts you can consult, and the classes you can take. At some point, you have to leap. “You cannot cross a chasm in two small jumps,” the British statesman David Lloyd George once said.

10) You don’t have to be fearless to take risks. You don’t have to have all your ducks lined up, or even feel good. These aren’t prerequisites. But if you wait until your hands stop shaking, you’ll never open the door. And you must. You might not cease being fearful, but you can cease to let fear control you. Besides, there’s fear and suffering in life whether or not you take risks, so you might as well suffer in the service or your dreams.

11) If there are dangers inherent in risk, there’s also reward. When you stand in front of an audience and speak, though you may lose composure, you may also discover that you are, after all, someone who’s capable of public speaking. If you’re panic-stricken in the face of conflict between you and others, and yet rise to an occasion and confront someone, you may lose a few nights’ sleep, but you may also lose your terror of it, and may even find that your very acuteness around conflict makes you the best sort of negotiator—that your wound is your gift. If you’re afraid to test your wares in the marketplace, to send your delicate shoots of optimism out into an indifferent world, and if you do it anyway, you risk losing your innocence, but if you sell, you gain confidence that can’t be had any other way.

12) The desire to protect yourself from change probably does more harm to the flowering of your life and spirit than almost any other choice, but it’s imperative to understand something about security: it isn’t secure! Everything about security is contrary to the central fact of life: that it changes. By avoiding risk, you may feel safe and secure—or at least experience a tolerable parody thereof—but you won’t avoid the harangues of your conscience. The important risks you don’t take now become the regrets you have later. In fact, one of the scariest—and most useful—things anybody ever said to me was this: “If you’re not failing regularly, you’re living so far below your potential that you’re failing anyway.”

13) If you discover through the intelligent taking of risks that, indeed, you can partake of your callings, you can act in accordance with your deepest values and passions, you can have what you so desire, you’re then faced with another task: having to revise your beliefs about yourself and the world; what is and isn’t possible.

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