I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about what it means to take risks.
I’m 21 years old. I don’t drink — except for cranberry pomegranate juice, iced lattes and too much Mountain Dew. I don’t smoke: marijuana, cigarettes or hookah. I don’t really party; I can’t dance, my only move being the “white-girl shuffle.”
I’m irreligious. My resistance to vice culture is based less on sanctimony and more on an innate banality and intrinsic gravitation to a monochromic lifestyle. That’s probably why I’m so attracted to journalism. I lead a boring existence so I must live vicariously through others.
The point is: for all intents and purposes, I’m a relatively vanilla, “riskless” person. Risks for me include calling Papa Johns for pizza, root canals and sticking my hand out in order to stop an elevator door from closing.
I am far from being the urban climber, Mustang Wanted, who climbs tall things with basically just his pinky fingers. And I’m certainly not Alan Eustace, the Google executive who took a literal plunge when he hurled himself out of a plane, grasped hands with gravity and set the new high-altitude skydiving world record of roughly 135,000 feet.
These are risks I fondly refer to as “flipping-the-universe-the-middle-finger escapades.” There are all sorts of arguments that could be made about how one might educe inspiration and hope in the human condition from these types of acts. And that’s great. But we have a fight or flight response for a reason — “flight” being the operative word in the term.
Evolution said to itself a while back that it makes a bit more sense for us to err on the side of caution when facing a sabertooth tiger head-on. So, there’s a reason why the greater part of the human population doesn’t treat life like LIFE®. We’re intrigued by those members of our species who are, by evolution’s standards, well, insane. We’re enamored of those who are less boring than ourselves, and anomalous behavior fascinates us.
I’m never going to bungee jump. I’m never going to be the anomaly. So what, I ask? It doesn’t mean I can’t, and won’t, take risks. In fact, I say that our whole concept of what constitutes a risk is a warped idea that promotes sensationalism over pragmatism. What is practical can be risky. I promise.
I’m assuming the majority of my readers right now are in that ever-pivotal stage of young adulthood the U.S. Census likes to call the 18-34-year-old age bracket. Out of the roughly 300 million U.S. citizens, we’re 75-million strong. That’s a lot of people trying to figure out life — particularly a weird time in life.
The world is telling us we must find a passion that consumes us and that we’ve now reached “the” moment when it is incumbent upon us to begin actively pursuing said passion. However, the world — the backstabber that it is — also tells us the job market isn’t thriving quite like WhiteHouse.gov would lead us to believe. And, to make matters worse, we having nothing to offer because our age renders us useless.
Man, this sucks. And when things suck, one begins to view risks in a different light. Here are a few risks that I’ve taken recently because “man, this sucks”: cold-calling a member of my desired industry and asking for an information interview; sending in applications to organizations that are out of my league; reassessing my flimsy resume and realizing future employers do not care if I made friendship bracelets with my BFF Tiffany in Girl Scouts.
Yes, none of these activities are “flipping-the-universe-the-middle-finger escapades.” Sending an email to a stranger about job opportunities isn’t really a risk. But I posit hitting that “send” button feels just as electrifying as whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon.
That’s because we define risks based on their negative outcomes. And what’s funny about the human psyche is that when classifying these outcomes we rarely contextualize them. Risks are more about feelings than reality.
We think if you jump out of a plane, that ‘s a risk because you’ve increased your chances of finding out whether or not I’m wrong about heaven’s nonexistence. But really, statistics would suggest you’re more likely to die walking down Tate Street at 3:00 a.m. than when you’re pulling your parachute cord at 5,000 feet.
I’m not arguing to do stupid things because statistics might suggest daily life produces unfavorable results more than not-so-daily life — remember who’s talking here, the girl who thinks a trip to the library is a night out on the town. What I am arguing, however, is that risks are really more a matter of the mind.
Cold-calling people is scary for me. It feels like a risk because my brain perceives the action as an act that could produce a negative, and therefore dangerous, outcome. I don’t want to annoy anyone; I’m terrified of rejection and failure; I’m anxious I’ll be told I’m just not good enough. These are bad feelings, and the fight or flight response doesn’t just protect us from grizzly bears; it also protects our hearts.
My philosophy is simple: the risk I take should be commensurate with the outcome I can handle. That outcome might be positive or negative, but it needs to be an outcome with which I can live.
It’ll hurt if an employer tells me I’m just not there yet. But I can handle that. It won’t kill me, and as Kelly Clarkson constantly scream-sings at me: what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and I’ll stand a little taller. Clarkson is an American Idol winner; she knows things.
This is a hectic life phase. All life phases are hectic. But there’s something about this point in life that’s seemingly off-kilter, precarious and unpropitious. Most of us feel underprepared. Many of us, in fact, are underprepared. I don’t know many people my age right now who don’t feel like they’re walking around with only one eye open and who can’t find clean pants because going to the laundromat interferes with job interviews and studying for midterms.
I have a lot to learn about my craft. But I find solace in the fact that just because someone is presently better than me doesn’t mean they will be 10 years from now. I argue it’s too soon to make conclusive judgments about our abilities.
Some of us have a steep learning curve, and some of us haven’t had access to the same resources as others. Granted, when us 20-somethings are 30-somethings the conversation changes, and self-assessment is not only important but imperative. For now, though, our focus should be on what risks we can handle taking.
Our time at university and the next few years in the “real” world are the “training-wheels” phase. This is when we figure out what we’re all about. The “risks” that we’re currently terrified of will be laughable to us a decade from now.
But we’ll also look back fondly on these risks as moments in our lives when we learned we can handle the outcomes, and that the icy, wobbly, unnerving sensation signifying we’ve stepped out of our comfort zones is a sensation not necessarily indicating a threat, but instead that an opportunity has arrived for our personal versions of a “flipping-the-universe-the-middle-finger escapade.”
I refuse to be someone who misses opportunities because I treated risk like a four-letter word that deserves to be censored.
My understanding of what a risk is will change as I mature. It should be that way. But I hope my response remains the same. I guess I always want to be a “riskless” risk-taker.
What risks will you take, readers?