Learn to take reasonable risks and use lots of discretion in listening to others’ advice.
May 22, 2022
Living a big life takes courage.
To over and over stand at the edge of a metaphorical cliff and take a step, not knowing the exact outcome.
Each time you take a reasonable risk, you learn, through trial and error, that you can manage yourself regardless of what life hands you. Trust builds with every reasonable risk that doesn’t kill you. (More on that later.)
The trial and error approach can also teach you to use discernment in taking advice from others. Pay close attention to the lives of the people who are giving you advice — if they’re not walking the walk, why are you listening to their talk?
Many of us spend much of our lives afraid. We’re fearful of lots of things:
- Hurting someone’s feelings.
- Getting anybody’s disapproval.
- Being kicked out of the group.
- Not failing and assuming we won’t be able to handle it.
- Not meeting the right person, having the right kids, picking the right career, or making enough money…
Fear is normal. Letting it stop you is something to reconsider.
Being alert and thoughtful doesn’t always mean running away when we have an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of our stomach. It may simply mean we need more information, time, or reassurance.
I promise you, if you’ve done our homework, you’ll always be capable of taking one small first step in the direction of your biggest dreams. Then, when you have a tad more courage, you can take the next small step. Rather than jumping off a cliff, you begin to build a bridge to your dream.
In my late thirties, after much agonizing, I took what I thought was a reasonable risk. I quit my advertising job and registered for a Master’s in Counseling program. I worked two part-time jobs and paid for classes as I went, which cleaned out my retirement account.
I graduated with no debt. I was broke, but I had no debt. And I had a degree that allowed me to get a job in a field that inspired me.
Don’t let fear of change, failure, or embarrassment hold you hostage. Unless what you fear will kill you. But the reality is that change, failure or embarrassment surely won’t.
I’m not suggesting anybody should impulsively quit their job without money for the next grocery run or hitchhike across the country — especially not in today’s world. Those aren’t reasonable risks.
A reasonable risk is when you have explored and carefully considered the possible consequences and decided you can handle the outcomes.
Reasonable risks bring your dreams to life. They come in all shapes and sizes:
- Remember that woman you met in line at the coffee shop and had a stimulating sixty-second conversation with — next time, give your phone number and suggest a trip to the zoo.
- Tell the guy that made you laugh at the party you’d love to get coffee.
- Play in the rain.
- Go to India and meet your guru.
- Move to Spain on a teaching visa or to the trendy neighborhood where you don’t need a car because everybody rides bikes.
- Make friends with people with different ideas. (This one’s risky, yes, but I can almost guarantee if you get good at asking questions, you’ll find something in common.)
- Start a garden, even if you live in the city and there’s no room — grow food on your enclosed porch like one of my clients, or rent space in a neighborhood garden.
- If you can’t afford a vacation, get a tent, sleeping bags, an air mattress, and roast marshmallows for two weeks. (If you’re in bear country, keep cookies out of your tent because they will find you. Hard lesson learned.)
- Help everyone who looks like they need a hand.
- Write the book that you believe is in you. If it gets published, great. If it doesn’t get published, great. You put in writing what matters to you.
Whatever it is you feel deeply about — keep at it. You’ll get more confident with each step and better at it with every attempt.
Be careful whose opinions you take to heart.
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” — Marcus Aurelius.
The nature of the beast is to have opinions. About everything. Especially the things about which we know almost nothing.
We humans don’t like not knowing. We also tend to take whatever path offers the least discomfort.
The good news is that those two characteristics, the need to know, to have answers, and the need to protect ourselves from discomfort, have resulted in accelerated learning and a population that continues to have longer and longer lifespans. (Although there is new research that suggests we may be reversing those numbers in the US, but that’s for another post.)
The downside is that we often base opinions on shallow pools of information gathered from like-minded people and our own personal, limited experience base.
So take others’ opinions with a full shaker of salt if their lives don’t support the wisdom they’re imparting..
At the same time, cherish the feedback you get from people whose lives you’d be willing to emulate.
But even with them, remember to take what works for you and leave the rest. You are unique in the universe — no one can replicate you, nor do you want to replicate anybody else. We can’t afford to lose you!
One of my best discoveries was that I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. And I didn’t have to personally meet every person who might teach me something I needed to know.
I learned assertiveness by reading about Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, who, with stunning forthrightnes– in spite of an impoverished childhood and a lack of polished interpersonal skills — taught Helen’s parents how to help their daughter.
I learned from Rachel Naomi Remen, a brilliant therapist and writer, that non-judgmental listening can open even the hardest of hearts.
The writings of Anthony DeMello, a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist, taught me to question traditional wisdom because much of it is nonsense. And my favorite psychology professor, Mr. Freuling, encouraged his students to “challenge everything you think, or you might end up living someone else’s life.”
And finally, I experienced therapy for myself to see what worked, and learned the most from what didn’t.
Summing it up.
You owe it to yourself, and to the world, to live as big a life as possible. You can start this very moment.
Pick something small that you have put off because you don’t have enough time, energy, or money to pursue. And, of course, at this moment, you don’t have enough of anything to bite off the whole dream.
But you can identify the first step. Gather information, reminding yourself you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Gathering information doesn’t mean you’re making a permanent commitment. Instead, you’re enlarging your perspective and expanding your understanding of what is possible.
How do you know it’s the right time to take a risk? It’s the right time when you’re aware that nothing else can satisfy you but to dive in, face the fear, and begin to build your bridge.
I’m getting a small tattoo on my right arm that says courage. I’ve wanted it for years, but I was afraid.
What’s your fear?