The Benefits of Risk Taking

January 25th, 2011

Last night I watched a mostly unknown Ukrainian tennis player beat the number four player in the world. I’m glad I’m writing his name because I certainly can’t pronounce Alexandr Dolgopolov. This guy was awesome and so fun to watch. It was extreme tennis, full of improvised shots and nonchalant flair. He played like he had nothing to lose. So he was free to give it his all. It made me think about taking risks. I want to live my life like Alexandr Dolgopolov plays tennis, and take more risks.

Are you a risk taker? Consider these questions-

Do you look for 100% certainty before making decisions?

Do you talk to strangers?

Do you challenge people in authority?

Would you take out a loan for a vacation?

Would you apply for a job you feel under qualified for?

Do you share private thoughts and feelings with new acquaintances?

Would you go sky diving?

Are you willing to be a minority of one on matters of personal opinion?

If you answered “no” to all, you are a safety first kind of person. The world needs people like you. You offer much needed skepticism and caution on issues of change and risk. As long as you feel fully satisfied in your caution, then have at it. Or else maybe you answered “yes” to some. Maybe you are cautious in some areas of life and not others. Maybe you would quit a well paying job to follow your passion, but not jump out of plane in a million years. Or maybe you would climb the steepest ice covered peak but never challenge your boss under any circumstances.

Do your own risk assessment and trust your instincts. Think about taking some risks in new parts of your life to remind yourself to step beyond your comfort zone.  As a parent, I want to empower my kids to get to know their own risk boundaries and growth points. However I also want my kids to know that certain things like texting while driving are bad risks. Learning your own boundaries around risk taking is about living with forgiveness. We too often pass up risks for fear of being trapped, because we forget that life offers second chances. Risks are part of life’s inbuilt signposts. Risks either give you momentum to continue or a warning to stop. Either way, you know you’re alive. As Anais Nin said, “I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.”

When it comes to matters of the heart, life calling or personal development, we could all do with a little nudge in the direction of taking greater risks. In order to be all that you can be, and push beyond self limiting boundaries, you will need to take some risks. These inner risks are far more heart stopping than physical risks but the payoff is enormous. I heard an interview with a group of climbers who described the relationship between climbing and risk taking. One said, “I climb so I don’t feel like a robot, so I feel like I’m doing something that is motivated by the ‘self.’” Another said, “There’s a freshness to the climbing experience that clears away the weariness of routine and the complexity of social norms. Climbing brings you back to a primal place, where values are being created and transformed.” Risk taking is part of how you discover the boundaries of where you end and others begin. When you push off from the guard rails of society’s norms, you get a clearer sense of who you are at your essence.

Without risk, you would never escape from the prison of who you think you have to be to satisfy the critics into the fullness of your true self that always was. The irony is that you need to take risks in order to move beyond the small self that keeps itself alive by believing there is too much at stake. There isn’t. There is more of substance in a tennis ball than in the small self’s delusions of permanence. It’s all changing, all the time. The greater risk is to mistake a memory or an idea for the way things really are, for then you risk missing the moment. At your essence you know what is true risk and what is ego’s games, and you know that risk is necessary because on the other side of the risk lies freedom.

As you blossom, you realize that there are very few real risks because there are no mistakes. When you are grounded in inner peace, whatever you do is appropriate and if you have to adjust your course, you do that and move on without self blame or judgment.

We live in a world that offers few certainties. The fearful have just as much risk of tragedy as the bold. Put your fears at ease. Remind them that you are whole and lovable, abundant and brilliant to begin with and this essence doesn’t need to be protected. Shine a light on your fear and it will be revealed for what it is. What fear called risk will soon be revealed as opportunity.

As Glenn Close’s character says to a group of acting students in her recent film Heights, “For Christ’s sake, take a risk sometime this weekend.” Its good advice, on stage, on a tennis court and in life. Take a risk, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that you are alive and you are open to the adventure of whatever’s unfolding. Take a risk to remind yourself that the beauty of life is that it offers no certainties. It is open and dynamic. Open your heart to love. End a relationship that has run its course. Make a decisive career move. Initiate a difficult conversation. Ask someone on a date. Book the sky diving adventure. Speak to a stranger.

Be safe by all means. But don’t forget to truly live while you are alive. To end with the words of one of my favorite American philosophers, William James, “It is only by risking that we really ever live at all.”

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