Right Risk: 10 Powerful Principles for Taking Giant Leaps with Your Life

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We must take risks if we are to grow personally and professionally. Risks are a part of a fully-lived life. But in the commotion of today's fast-paced, technology-driven world, people have become disconnected from the wise counsel of their inner resources, hampering their ability to make meaningful choices. Consequently, risks are increasingly being taken in an impulsive, haphazard, and often reckless way. In Right Risk, Bill Treasurer draws on the experiences and insights of successful risk-takers (including his own experiences as a daredevil high diver) to detail ten principles that readers can use to take risks with greater intelligence and confidence. Right Risk is about taking more deliberate and intentional risks in an increasingly complex world. It aims to answer such questions as: How do I know which risks to take and which to avoid? How do I balance the need to take more risks with the need to preserve my safety? How do I muster up the courage to take risks when it is so much easier not to? How do I confront all those people who keep telling me what a mistake it would be to take the risk? And, most importantly, How do I make risk-taking less of an anxiety-provoking experience? Right Risk will help readers take risks with greater discipline, focus, and maturity-to confidently face life's challenges and take advantage of life's opportunities.

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Principle 1: Find Your Golden Silence

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It might seem strange that the first of ten Right Risk principles deals with silence. Come on, you might be thinking, let’s fast-forward to where the action is! Risk-taking is all about action, right? Risk-taking is James Bond throttling a motorcycle off a cliff and parachuting into a waiting speedboat; it’s Indiana Jones creeping into a cobwebbed chamber clutching his bullwhip; it’s John Rambo demolishing a foreign army all by himself; and it’s Lara Croft karate-chopping a baldheaded villain. Risk-taking is, archetypically, the hero putting his life on the line to save the damsel in distress from the racing locomotive. Heck, even risk-taking of a less action-packed nature involves doing something. Risk-taking is the protester marching, the rebel resisting, the entrepreneur innovating, the explorer discovering, and the writer opinionating. Surely risk-taking, that glorious act of courageous audacity, hasn’t got anything to do with silence.

True, risk-taking involves action. But before you can act you need to know what to act on. The reason silence is so important to risk-taking—and in particular Right Risk-taking—is that it helps make your risks more deliberate, intentional, and directed. Silence, extended to the point of mental stillness, has a leveling effect on your perspective, sharpening your powers of discernment. Through silence you become more attuned to your most deeply held beliefs and values, helping you perceive what risks are most compatible with your inner constitution and thus which are truly worth taking. Through silence you can more accurately answer your Right Risk question, Is this the Right Risk for me? Hence, the first principle of Right Risk is find your golden silence.

 

Principle 2: Defy Inertia

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Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia, tells us that a body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Inertia is defined as the property of an object to resist changes in its state of motion. We, too, are subject to the laws of inertia. We, too, are bodies at rest or in motion. And inertia inhibits our ability to take risks because it resists our ability to change. Risk-taking is about starting something new or stopping something we’ve grown comfortable with. In the human law of inertia, risk-taking is the force that shoves us out of our routine or comfort zone. To risk means to change, and because risk-taking causes the usual discomfort that accompanies change, inertia—the cozy comfort of the status quo—is often a more attractive choice. To overcome its debilitating effects, and to help ready yourself for the risk, Right Risk-takers need to learn to defy inertia.

Through risk-taking we move beyond the comfort of our current condition and overcome inertia. Sometimes this movement is taken through physical action, such as leaving the safety of the ground to scale the face of El Capitan. Other times the movement entails more of a cerebral shift, converting to a new political or religious belief system, for example. Whether physical or intellectual, risk is a vehicle that moves us from where we are to where we want to be, and you simply can’t get from here to there without movement. As a general rule, the greater the distance between your current reality (here) and the destination to which the risk will carry you (there), the more substantial the risk. And the hard truth is, the bigger the gap between here and there, the more energy, discomfort, and sacrifice will be required to overcome inertia and take the risk. Risk-taking is hard work.

 

Principle 3: Write Your Risk Scripts

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As they exited the aqua-theater, one of the most frequent compliments the audience gave us divers was that we “made it look easy.” While easy may have been the result, the word doesn’t adequately account for all the rehearsing and fine tuning needed to make the show appear that way. The diving show was extremely well choreographed. Though the audience didn’t know it, each dive, each moment on stage, and each bow of gratitude for the audience’s applause, was exhaustively rehearsed. Even our smiles were rehearsed! With our index finger, we’d swipe off the saliva from our top teeth, and tuck the upper lip against the whites of our teeth. From the audience it looked like we were smiling, but if you were on the stage with us you’d swear that we had had our top lips removed.

To further enhance the easy look of our performance, both the divers and the announcer regimentally followed a tightly defined script. Scripting was especially important during the comedy portion of the show because we had to dupe the audience for the comedy routine to work. This vaudevillian trickery involved the announcer, one diver as a “straightman,” and another diver planted as an unruly audience member. Here is how the setup was choreographed:

 

Principle 4: Turn on the Risk Pressure

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The fourth principle in readying for your risk is that you need pressure to nudge yourself from your current situation—your risk platform. Consider again the high dive. The moment preceding the jump is full of tension. The diver is well aware of being watched. The expectant eyes of the audience create pressure—pressure to leap, pressure to perform, pressure not to let the audience down. This is a pressure she’s felt before. She’s been dealing with it since she was a kid doing belly flops at the local pool. Other folks have pressured her too, like her parents, coach, and friends. But most of all, she’s felt pressure from herself. She constantly goads herself to dive higher and perform better.

Our lives have many points of risk pressure that act on us by forming an acute dissatisfaction with our current circumstances. Often our dissatisfaction intensifies until it grabs us by the throat and screams, “Take the risk and jump, you fool!” We reach this leaping point when the risk of changing outweighs the risk of staying the same. For example, when faced with a career transition, the risk decision often boils down to a choice between a known unhappiness and an unknown possibility of happiness. We become increasingly dissatisfied with our current job until it becomes nearly impossible to get out of bed and face another day at the office. We may call in sick to avoid the risk decision; but the decision won’t let us go. The more we allow ourselves to live in a state of dissatisfaction, the more we feel as if we are living a lie, and the pressure builds. Although many of us have a tremendous capacity for tolerating misery, eventually we will reach our high-dive moment and decide the risk of changing outweighs the risk of staying in a suffocating situation.

 

Principle 5: Put Yourself on the Line

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Woven into the DNA of every living creature, from the tiniest jellyfish to the largest sequoia, is the impulse to live. No creature desires to extinguish itself. Every organism is equipped with the ability to propagate itself in order to ensure the preservation of its genes. Death is to be avoided, and all the things that extend life are held at a premium. Every species must reproduce and then protect its offspring to ensure survival. The basic instinctual knowledge shared by all of creation is that life is preserved most effectively by avoiding danger. Because it is so essential to the perpetuation of life, self-preservation is the most basic and deeply rooted inhibitor of risk.

Were it not for the vital safety mechanism of self-preservation, the alternative, self-destruction, would be the norm. Thus, in writing about self-preservation as an inhibitor of risk, I don’t want to suggest that you purposely ward off self-preservation by becoming self-destructive. Rather, I want you to consider the degree to which self-preservation regulates your behavior. Ideally, you should be regulating this powerful instinct versus letting it regulate you. The simple fact is, if your life is governed solely by a desire to avoid danger, you will never be fully expressed as a risk-taker, and you will never be able to relish the risk. Life’s greatest risk moments demand that you be willing to relinquish at least a part of your self-preservation instinct, not in a self-destructive way, but in a self-ignoring, or even self-sacrificing way. Thus the fifth Right Risk principle is to put yourself on the line.

 

Principle 6: Make Your Fear Work for You

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The most common question asked of high divers is, “Are you afraid up there?” My response has always been that if you aren’t afraid, you’ll probably get hurt. High divers aren’t fearless. Rather, they are fear-enhanced, or enfeared. It is precisely this fear that heightens a diver’s awareness of his surroundings so he won’t make any mistakes. Divers often talk of having a “healthy respect for the ladder.” We respected the fact that at any time, the high diving gods could cause us to tumble out of control and come crashing down to Earth. Our respect was grounded in fear, and most diving injuries happened in fear’s absence. We knew that fear kept us safe. Indeed, we were more worried when we weren’t afraid than when we were. When leaping from the ladder, fear was a VIP passenger that always came along for the ride.

When you talk about risk, invariably you have to talk about fear. Risk, after all, has an intimate relationship with fear. Fear is the great risk inhibitor. We fear high places. We fear loss. We fear failure. We fear success. We fear rejection. We fear embarrassment. We fear commitment. We fear intimacy. We fear the unknown. And, of course, we fear fear. But the truth about fear is that we need it. Fear is the primary (and primordial) warning system that alerts us to danger. In threatening situations, fear jacks up our heartbeat and stimulates our senses to keep us from getting hurt. In well-proportioned measures, it can sharpen your focus, quicken your reflexes, enhance your performance, and even add to your excitement and enjoyment of the risk. The point is, fear is a powerful energy that, properly channeled, can make risk-taking an invigorating and rewarding experience. Indeed, fear-laden risks tend to be the most memorable once taken. For these reasons, and because relishing risk is partly a function of living in a fear-respectful way, every Right Risk-taker needs to be well versed in Right Risk principle 6: make fear work for you.

 

Principle 7: Have the Courage to be Courageous

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The subject of our last principle (fear) and the subject of this principle (courage) go hand-in-hand. Fear is the predecessor, and instigator, of courage. Indeed, because courage is a response to fear, you can’t demonstrate courage unless you are afraid. Though people falsely assume that courage is about being fearless, in reality the opposite is true. Courage is completely full of knee-knocking, teeth-chattering fear. So rather than walk with the cocksure swagger of John Wayne, courage shakes with the insecure awkwardness of Barney Fife.

The difference between a coward and a courageous person is not that one is afraid and the other isn’t. To be sure, both are afraid. Rather, the difference is in how each responds to fear. To be a coward is to turn and run from fear when you are fully capable of confronting it, but unwilling to do so. Conversely, to be courageous is to stay and confront fear even though you are afraid, not with Neanderthal bravery, mind you, but by allowing yourself to stay present with all your fearful feelings and then to walk through them. Even though courage is full of fear, it takes the risk anyway. By definition then, courage means acting in the face of fear.

 

Principle 8: Be Perfectly Imperfect

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Nobody’s perfect, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from trying. And why not? There are lots of good reasons for wanting to be perfect. Some professions, for example, greatly benefit from their inherent perfectionism. This is especially true of professions where the consequences of mistakes would be catastrophic, where the human or the financial costs of errors are simply too great to bear. Indeed, the higher the potential for catastrophe, the more necessary and warranted is the perfectionistic behavior. Consequently, among the most perfectionistic people you’ll ever meet are bridge-building engineers, skyscraper architects, nuclear physicists, software engineers, and brain surgeons. I, for one, thank God for that. If you ever had the misfortune of requiring brain surgery and had to choose between a pursed-lipped, anal-retentive surgical tactician or a giddy, free-wheeling improvisationalist, who would you choose?

The trouble with perfectionism is that it impedes our ability to take risks. Perfectionists are better suited for mitigating risks than for taking them. This mostly stems from their almost obsessive preoccupation with anticipating what can go wrong. Perfectionists are prone to “catastrophizing,” focusing on worst-case scenarios in order to account for, and control, every possible negative outcome. This, in turn, lends itself toward a doom-n-gloom outlook when facing a risk. Thus, risks themselves are seen through a prism of negativity that not only makes the risk-taking experience unenjoyable, but through the power of expectancy often sets it up for failure as well. Which brings us to Right Risk Principle 8: Be perfectly imperfect. Here you will look at some of the ways that perfectionism interferes with risk-taking, and why making a commitment to being perfectly imperfect is one of the best things you can do while pursuing, and taking, your risk.

 

Principle 9: Trespass Continuously

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Kurt Hahn was Adolph Hitler’s first political prisoner.1 In January 1933, one month after Hitler came to power, Hahn was jailed for openly challenging the Fuehrer’s actions. Hahn was the founder of the Salem School, a school that focused on character development through the use of experiential education techniques. Upon learning that Hitler had sent a congratulatory telegram to five storm troopers who had murdered a young Communist by stomping him to death, Hahn had written a letter to all Salem alumni, telling those with ties to the SS to “terminate their allegiance either to Hitler or to Salem.”2 For thumbing his nose to Hitler, Hahn was imprisoned. He was released a few months later, but being of Jewish origin and having just had a foreshadow of Germany’s future, Hahn fled to Great Britain. Within a year of arriving, he set up a new school in Scotland: The Gordonstoun School.

Like the earlier school, Gordonstoun used innovative, experiential approaches to education. Hahn believed that students benefit most when all aspects of their being are developed: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Thus, the curriculum included rigorous study, strenuous exercise, periods of extended silence, craftwork, art and music, and character development. In addition to their studies, students learned mountain rescue techniques, participated in the local fire brigade, and rowed lifeboats along the rugged Scottish seacoast. Hahn believed that every student has a “grand passion” and saw it as his aim to help them shed the “misery of unimportance.” He explained, “We are all better than we know; if only we can be brought to realize this, we might never settle for anything less.”3 The school became so successful that Britain’s Prince Phillip, himself a Gordonstoun alumnus, insisted that each of his three sons, princes Charles, Andrew, and Edward, attend the school.

 

Principle 10: Expose Yourself

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Like a lot of men, my relationship with my father is complex. Over the years it has moved from love, to hate, to love again. When I was a boy, he was the hero of the household, leaving to conquer the world each morning, and sitting at the head of the dinner table each night. But as I moved into adolescence, and then into my young twenties, we argued a lot. The problem was, we were similar people looking at the world in different ways; he with jaded cynicism, me with rose-colored glasses. I resented him for always dousing my idealistic optimism for a better world with resigned pessimism for a worse one. He was no hero, I thought, just a bitter curmudgeon who’d let life beat him down.

As my resentments toward my father deepened, I wrote him off. Though I had moved away from home to become a high diving gypsy at 21, I often stayed in close contact with the rest of my family through cards, letters, and occasional phone calls. But I purposely left him out. He is a bad father, I told myself, so I will be a bad son.

 

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