On Accepting Risk

Nobody is immune from risk.

As I start writing this I’m sitting here listening to the Home Run Derby, enjoying the fact that although Carlos Beltran has gone to the dark side (the St. Louis Cardinals) he was once a hometown hero (Kansas City Royals!) and is currently second in the derby with seven home runs.  My sitting here blogging/listening carries some risk with it.  If you want to go to the extreme the Starbucks I’m sitting at could be Ground Zero for the impending zombie apocalypse which would be a really big downside that would probably outweigh the awesome coffee I’m sipping on right now.  [probably, but not necessarily; the blonde roast is pretty dang good here and may be worth turning into a flesh-eating zombie for]  On a more likely risk scenario I could get in trouble because I’m completely ignoring my phone right now (I have “Sanity” turned on and handling all my calls for me) so I can focus on writing this blog post.

That’s a choice I’m willing to make – writing this has value to me, and I’m willing to accept the risk that something bad will happen with the choice I’ve made (driven heavily by the fact the risk that something terribly bad will happen is pretty small).

[complete side note – as I’m writing this guess who happens by?  My little brother, Logan.  Chalk that up to the good side of the equation for hanging out here and writing]

So how do you handle risk?  Are you the kind of girl who’s gung-ho-and-damn-the-consequences, or are you the calculating kind of guy who measures every step twice before he puts his foot tentatively down?  Or is the answer to that question “yes”?

This quote from Mary Chapin Carpenter’sI Take My Chances” is one of my favorites:

Now some people say that you shouldn’t tempt Fate
And for them I can not disagree;
But I never learned nothin’ from playing it safe
I say Fate should not tempt me.

And when I say “one of my favorites” it’s a great song (she’s an incredible soulful singer), but beyond that it’s who I aspire to be, at least as far as risk-taking goes.

Too often I know I let the potential consequences of my actions rule my life.  Which conceptually isn’t a bad thing – society would crumble if we all ignored the risks associated with what we do.  We’d run red lights, eat pink bratwurst, take a bat to the cars of people who cut us off, verbalize (or physicalize, if that’s a word) those thoughts in our head when someone pushes the wrong buttons on us.  While we’d all like to think we simply don’t do some of those latter things because we’re good people ask yourself this honest question – if you could take a bad to the car of your ex who shattered your heart, turned your kids against you and drained every cent from your bank account with 100% certainty you’d never be caught…would you?

Maybe you’re one of the few who can honestly answer that question “no”.  But for most of the rest of us it’s the risk of getting caught (and the associated consequences) that keeps us from acting out our fantasies.

Maybe not  taking a Louisville Slugger to both headlights (thanks, Carrie Underwood) is probably classified as “a good bet” when it comes right down to it. The temporary pleasure you get from beating at $40k car into twisted sheet metal is probably offset long-term when you have to check the yes box next to “have you ever been convicted of a felony” on your next job application.  But what about the decisions you make in your career?

The answer is pretty easy – when the possible upside outweighs the possible downside.  The trick, however, is not to let your fears get blown out of proportion.

I read a great article from Tim Ferriss (who regular readers of The Paul Gillespie Experience will recognize as one of my favorite authors) entitled “How To Take Intelligent Career Risk” where I found this great quote:

Uncertainty and the prospect of failure can be very scary noises in the shadows.  Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.

Anyone else have that hit you over the head with a metaphorical 2×4 (if it was a literal 2×4 you might want to check and see if anyone else said “screw the risk” and decided to carry out a vendetta against you)?  I’m not talking about in a career sense, either – you can apply Tim’s quote to any aspect of your life.  Friendships, career, money, time, love, family.  Pick an aspect of your life – you can apply that quote.

Don’t get me wrong – my life is good.  But “good” isn’t perfect – there are pieces of it that are so far out of whack I’m living with the status of “being smothered by a wet blanket” instead of risking the uncertainty of saying “let’s do something different, ’cause this ain’t working”.  And it stays that way because I haven’t really taken to heart Machiavelli’s great quote about risk:

All courses of action are risk, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively.

I tend to blow the downside out of proportion in a lot of areas of my life.  Every time I have a serious conversation with myself and I get to a point where I have to think about what the downside to doing X is it always seems to end up with me being slowly dismembered while being consumed in a raging fire and drowning at the same time.  Luckily I don’t seem to have that issue when I have to make most of my daily decisions or I’d still be stuck at that light off Holmes and Blue Ridge (“What’s the worst that could happen if I turned right?  A train could derail right on top of me and I could end up consumed by flames while I’m drowning in sweet crude oil while the searing hot metal of the tanker car dismembers me!”) into perpetuity.  On the plus side of that I could always be near to my second home – Volleyball Beach – but it would be somewhat inconvenient to actually, you know, playing.

Which, oddly enough, is one of the places that I throw caution to the wind.  I don’t have any fear when I’m playing my passion (beach volleyball) – I’ll run full speed towards the picnic table if it means I can save an errant pass; I’ll dive within inches of a steel pole if it means I can put a ball back in play; I’ll jump up to block a ball that Josh is spiking at 500 miles per hour if I get a chance at returning the ball back to the other side of the court (even if it’s with my face).  It’s not that I don’t get injured (pulled calf muscles, deep bone bruises, torn shoulder ligaments – just to name a few), but more that I love the game so much that I only know how to play it without regard for the consequences.

Now, to be fair, I’m smart enough that I don’t ignore the pole; I just know when I’m close enough that the risk is too high to continue on so I veer off.  But it’s when the risk is really too high, not just there.  I don’t stop five feet from the concrete wall because there’s a chance that if I go any closer I might trip and fly headlong into it (and then spontaneously combust while I drown in the wet sand as the fence falls down and slowly dismembers me…); I go right up until it’s highly likely that another step ruins me – until the likelihood of the risk outweighs the benefit of maybe saving a point for the team.

But why there?  Why can I do that when I’m playing beach volleyball but I can’t wrap my brain around it in any other area of my life?  What about playing the sport I absolutely love to play gives me the strength to push my limits and go further towards even on the (practical) risk/reward proposition than  any other area of my life?

If you’re a psychologist or sociologist or psychiatrist or neurophysicist or whatever and can answer that for me that would be awesome – I’m always curious about why we do things we do.

But if I had to wager a guess, it would be because I usually don’t have time to think when I’m playing volleyball, and I have to trust myself.  When you see the pass veer right you don’t have time to think “how many steps do I have before I hit the point of no return and break 27 of my 206 bones?” – I either start moving and trust myself to break off when the risk outweighs the reward or I just stay put and knowingly accept the lost point (the latter is not something I accept very easily, incidentally).

So now I have the $64,000 question, and it’s one I need your help with.  I’ve struggled with it for years and I’m no closer to an answer than when I began:

How do I turn off the “thinking” part of my brain and run on “instinct” in other areas of my life?

If you’ve got any thoughts, insights, comments or any other helpful (or not) commentary, I’d love to hear it.  I’m seriously perplexed by this, especially because I’ve been playing beach volleyball for a lot shorter of a time than pretty much any of the other aspects of my life.

And with that, friends, I’m calling it a night.  I’ve got Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “You Win Again” playing (it’s a good song kind of night) and so I’m going to dart out of here and get some sleep – it was a good (long) weekend.  Thanks in advance for any advice you’ve got!


(post image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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2 thoughts on “On Accepting Risk”

  1. Just a thought . . . when you are out playing on the beach, you are comfortable with who you are, how you play and don’t care if others like you. Perhaps in other areas of life, you are not as comfortable with who you are and how you play and do care if other like you (perhaps due to consequences they might invoke on you). I know that is a main reason why I am not comfortable to take a lot of risks at work and with relationships.

What do you think?