Yes, risk. And, security.
How to make two often overlooked distinctions to help us make more fulfilling choices for ourselves and others.
Life is too short to play it safe. It’s also too meaningful to play it recklessly.
A backseat van conversation with a teammate this fall landed us on the topic of taking risks. As young people, life decisions feel particularly consequential--what if I take an internship in the wrong place? What if I go to the wrong school? What if I date the wrong person? Artha and I traded reasons why the next season of life feels a bit overwhelming and uncertain, how sometimes the things we most want to do are the most risk-filled, and the natural desire for security in our lives and futures. Risk is a common factor in decision-making. Think about the last big choice you had to make: did you consider risks? Chances are, you chose the option with the lowest odds of failure. Me, too. Yet, I’m beginning to think we’re missing two critical distinctions when it comes to risk.
I once met a businessman who made a decision unlike most people in his position would make. Realizing his current business would soon be unprofitable and its bankruptcy would have a negative impact on many in his community, he liquidated the entire business. Many of his peers criticized him for giving up; he knew the critics were short-sighted. Here’s the thing about how this man looked at risk: he wasn’t afraid to take a risk for himself, but he wasn’t willing to take unnecessary risk on others’ behalf. He chose risk for himself and security for others, taking the heat for an unpopular decision but protecting the well-being of those connected to his business.
This distinction of who is impacted by our choices is one often overlooked piece in the puzzle of decision-making. How often do you only think about yourself when you choose a path? It’s true that some choices are often relatively personal in their impact, like where you go to college, but there are many where we don’t realize the external consequences. How you choose to spend your time in school makes a difference, friendships you choose to invest in are significant, and how you approach dating and relationships isn’t just about you, either. Maybe joining one more club at school looks like a low-risk decision for you, but will it put a strain on your friendships because you don’t have as much time? You likely have more influence on the people around you than you realize.
Here’s two quick questions to ask before you make a choice:
1) Who will feel the consequences if things don’t work out as planned?
2) Even if things do work out, what are the second (and third) order consequences of this choice? (that is, the consequences of the consequences: I choose to take on another responsibility at college, so I call my sister less often, so our friendship weakens, so even when we do talk it’s not very meaningful because we don’t know each other as well anymore, etc.)
It’s one thing to make secure decisions as far as others are concerned; how do we avoid living our life in such a way we get to the end and wish we’d lived more freely? This is where the second distinction comes in: personal risks are worth taking when there’s a deeper purpose. I’ve recently come to the realization I was lying to myself about an aspect of what I truly wanted in life because I was afraid of not finding what I was looking for. An opportunity presented itself to start down the path of what I truly want, and it’s certainly at risk of not panning out how I hope; yet, I’ve made the decision it’s worth it because even in the meantime there is value in it. With the right attitude, nothing is wasted. When we take risks which allow us to learn from an experience, win or lose, we’ll find ourselves on the other side with either fulfillment from a desired outcome or a deeper understanding of how life works with an undesired outcome. Both are worthwhile.
Two quick questions for the personal side of risk:
1) Is this risk in line with my priorities in life?
2) What will I learn if it doesn’t work out?
If the first answer is yes and the second is meaningful to you, it’s probably worth giving it a shot. It’s not that you can’t fail with this mindset, just that you’re playing the game on multiple levels and you may lose one but you’ll win the other.
This whole conversation around risk and security is tangential to the one of chance and control; the most useful way to look at risk is to focus more on what you can control once you’ve made a decision, not to agonize over probabilities before you make the decision. At the end of the day, humans are pretty bad at predicting outcomes so we might as well embrace the fact that much of what happens in life is beyond our control, but how we react to what happens is entirely in our control.
Yes, life is too short to play it safe. We’re driven by the thrill of risk, so if we only pursue things with no chance of failure it probably won’t be fulfilling. Yet, we’re also wired to build success on top of smaller successes, so if you can’t win it will be disheartening. And, yes, life is too meaningful to play it recklessly. If we fail to take others into account in our decisions and we disregard second and third order consequences, we’ll find ourselves in a place where we may have what we thought we wanted but we lost the trust of the people who make those things worthwhile. We can’t escape the uncertainty of life, so let’s embrace it and make every experience meaningful by learning and loving along the way. That, my friends, is how you find security even in risk.