Did you know that on the eve of his first Indian rights demonstration Mohandas Gandhi thought “You know what? I might get smacked about for this!” And called the whole thing off, staying in his neat black suit, practicing law with civilized gentlemen, and earning a nice and comfortable living for himself and his young family.
You might also be surprised to learn that Count Leo Tolstoy, on deciding to pursue a career as a writer found his prose abominable and couldn’t bear the effect of failure on his social reputation, so sacked the whole thing off and remained an officer in the Russain military, who in between moments of gambling and whoring, went back to his country estate, where he gambled and chased peasant girls, never to touch pen to paper again.
You will certainly be shocked to discover that Sylvester Stallone (I know, a bit of a step down from the last two) when sitting down to write the first draft of Rocky, couldn’t help but find the movie formulaic, his characters simple, and the idea of some Cinderella boxing story just a little too hokey. So two scenes in, he called it a day, and went back to being just another schlub, except with a bizarre, scarcely intelligible voice.
Or at least, that’s how it would’ve gone had they never taken any risks.
WHAT IS RISK?
“My momma always said life is like a box of chocolates.” Said Forrest Gump. “You never know what you’re gonna get.” But Forrest Gump is full of shit. And although it seems tangential to the article, this actually illustrates a key point.
People often fail to understand the difference between true risk and what is in fact uncertainty. And as a result, react in a way that doesn’t have any bearing on reality.
When Forrest says you never know what you’re going to get in a box of chocolates he is speaking in terms of uncertainty. As far as his analogy applies to life, he’s correct. The odds of anything in life are uncertain. But as far as a box of chocolates is concerned, he’s wrong. You have a fair chance of knowing exactly what you’re going to get. Because unlike life, the box of chocolates has pretty tangible odds. I mean, not only is he going to get chocolate, but there are fairly standard types of chocolate that someone gets in a box. For instance, it’s good odds that he’ll get a chocolate with strawberry filling.
While slightly less certain, Forrest’s catchphrase is no more realistic than saying “Life is like a pack of 52 playing cards, complete with Kings, Queens, Aces, suits, the lot. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Tell that to Rain Man.
In life, risk and uncertainty are not the same things. When it comes to true risk, elements are known and an outcome can be potentially calculated. It’ll rarely ever truly be known, but it’ll be far more certain than otherwise.
For instance, in a freshly opened pack of cards, you have a 1/4 chance of drawing a Heart. With those odds in mind, you have an idea of the risk you’re going to take if you’d gamble money on that outcome. It’s the same with reaching into a box of chocolates. You might risk pulling out the wrong flavor, but if you only dislike strawberry filled chocolates then there are good odds you’ll manage to pick one of the many that aren’t.
That is what actual risk is.
Uncertainty, on the other hand, is what life is all about. There are no real tangible odds for whether your business will succeed, whether your motorbike will crash, whether you’ll win a fight, fall in love, publish a book, or have a good time traveling alone. In reality, nobody could possibly know these things. At best you’ll get statistics that fall apart under scrutiny.
So when people talk about “taking risks” in life, what they’re really talking about is uncertainty. This is what “taking a risk” in life is. Confronting the unknown. Yet when people talk about these kinds of risks, they talk about them as if the odds are already known.
The call uncertainty risk, yet treat uncertainty like it operates under the rules of risk. But in life neither of those things are true.
Got a headache yet?
So, for the sake of cleaning up:
When you think of TAKING RISKS IN LIFE, RISK-TAKERS, or tell yourself “THIS IS RISKY” you are thinking of an unknown that you have to confront. An unknown where there are no odds.
Unless it’s gambling or a box of chocolates, this is the rule.
This is what I’m referring to when I say “risk” from now on.
(After all, I’m not here to give you gambling advice).
WHY IS RISK SO IMPORTANT?
You. Your life. The opportunities you are confronted with. The very idea you have of your own identity. All of this is affected by the risks you choose to take in life. The more you choose to take risks and confront the unknown, the more each of these elements expands. The less you take risks, the more you’re confined within your apparent certainties.
“I can’t do that.”
“That’s a bad idea.”
“X will happen, which will cause Y, and that would be stupid.”
“Only an idiot would do that!”
And so on. Whether it’s starting a business, riding a motorbike, defending yourself in a fight, approaching a woman, writing a book, traveling alone, there is always a certain answer as if the outcome is already known. And why confront the “unknown” if you don’t believe it’s unknown in the first place?
This is the hallmark of people who are risk-averse: they’re certain about something that it is not possible to be certain about. And as a result, they rarely discover what they never had the uncertainty to discover.
“I did have it in me to start a business.”
“I did have it in me to defend myself.”
“I was capable of getting her number and I did end up in love.”
“I did have a great time traveling alone.”
And when you never discover this, you never get to say the next part:
“I’m glad I risked it.”
The only way to engage with any form of self-improvement in life is to take consistent risks and confront the unknown. And the only reason you don’t take these risks is down to incorrect assumptions about the nature of risk itself, and incorrect, negative assumptions about yourself. As good old Mark Zuckerberg says “the biggest risk is not taking any risk… the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
(I imagine he said this prior to the Cambridge Analytica scandal…)
But if you’re risk-averse, then taking consistent risks is easier said than done.
THE ART OF RISK-TAKING
As that last tasty little quote demonstrates, it’s not out of character for successful people to recommend taking risks. On the one hand, they may be offering good advice, but on the other, given that -as I’ve pointed out- risks in life are a complete unknown, their faith in risk-taking probably has a lot to do with survivorship bias.
That is to say, it worked for them so they think it’ll work for you. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that quitting your job and eating baked beans whilst broke isn’t necessarily going to turn you into Richard Branson.
However, regardless of the odds of it working, taking risks in life and confronting the unknown is an unavoidable step in changing anything in your life. It can’t be avoided and it can’t be eliminated.
So how do you do it?
The essence of embracing risk-taking behavior lies in the fact that a single big risk does not exist in a vacuum, but is in fact composed of much smaller risks you take day to day, and even, in the way you choose to think.
If you choose to always think you can never make a lot of money, you will likely spend your money frivolously instead of investing it into your own development or opportunities, and when an occasion or idea strikes you that may have large potential returns (like say a business opportunity), it is unlikely you will have the courage to pursue it. In fact, you’ll probably self-sabotage it.
New position open up at work? Too late, you never asked about it.
Great business idea strike you? You’ll probably write it down, then find the piece of paper down the back of your bookcase in a years time.
Have a skill that you can offer to people? That’s great, but you’ll never face rejection by marketing it so nobody will ever know.
YOU HAVE TO APPROACH IT HOLISTICALLY
The big risks don’t happen as long as the small risks don’t either. And neither occurs if the thinking is confined by false certainties about yourself and resultant self-sabotage. But where does this process exist? Do you solve the thought and the rest follows? Or is it more complicated?
I think risk in life is something that has to be approached holistically. It’s not as simple as fix the thoughts and the rest will follow, as every step operates by the same principle. Whether it’s the thoughts, small risks, or big risks, the same principle is true:
You don’t know.
This is the only real certainty you have. You have no idea what thoughts are true and what aren’t. You have no idea whether a small risk of self-improvement (like saving money or reading) will pay off. You have no idea whether pursuing a promotion will end will in your favor; the big risks are always more unknown than any.
And I’m not here to tell you that they will pay off if you muster the bravery to try. I’m just here to say you have no idea. And neither do I.
It’s up to you whether you risk it.
THE MOST IMPORTANT RISKS YOU NEED TO TAKE
Ironically given my earlier examples, I don’t actually think the risks you have to take in life involve chasing big dreams like starting a business or writing a book. In many ways those are irrelevant, or outcomes of smaller, more fundamental risks that play out day by day, altering you in ways that actually push you towards those kinds of eventualities.
In my experience, the most important risks to take in life are actually fairly simple, but almost universally avoided. They’re risks that fundamentally relate to our character, and specifically what makes us comfortable. Whether that’s in life, love, friendships, or the way we view the world.
Here are the most important risks to take:
1) RISK FAILING TO CHANGE… OR CHANGING AT ALL
One of the main reasons why I believe people genuinely avoid real, challenging self-improvement is that they’re afraid of the result. And I don’t just mean the one where they fail.
When you’re used to living a certain way it becomes comfortable. And as much as you might think you want to change, improve, or achieve your dream the way you do; the reality is that this change threatens your comfort now.
Let’s say you feel like a loser and want to be successful. Sure, succeeding might make you feel better, but it also threatens your conception of yourself now. On the flip side, if you attempt to become successful and fail, what might that confirm about you? Again, pretty threatening.
Either way, the answer is uncomfortable. So what do you do? You never risk failing or changing at all. You procrastinate, put off, or distract yourself with easier, lighter forms of change – like hitting the gym till you get that endorphin high.
But the real, identity level change? That remains untouched.
2) RISK REJECTION
A great relationship and a great dating life are determined by the same thing:
Your willingness to reject or be rejected.
In brief, as I’ve built an entire dating course teaching this, the more you are willing to be rejected, the more you will naturally, and attractively express who you are and attract women into your life who are great for you.
The less willing you are to be rejected, the more you’ll engage with needy, manipulative behaviors, and all around have a shit time.
Sure, you have to do some groundwork on yourself too. But actively risking rejection will determine the vast majority of your results and happiness in dating. So next time you get shot down, remember that you’re doing yourself a favor.
3) RISK VULNERABILITY
Emotionally exposing yourself is the easiest way to defeat the persistent sense of loneliness. When you constantly repress, hide, and filter your emotions from other people, you stop yourself from ever feeling truly connected to others.
This obviously has a negative effect on your happiness, relationships, and friendships but it also has an effect on your ability to express yourself, and ultimately, understand yourself.
When you develop the habit of never making yourself vulnerable with others, you’re actually developing the habit of never being vulnerable with yourself. Everything that would be beneficial for you to understand you’re instead jamming down into your subconscious. Typically for stupid reasons like being “more masculine” that have nothing to do with actually being masculine.
As far as taking risks in life go, the risk of vulnerability has its hands in everything from success to just your overall well being. Don’t discount it.
4) RISK CONFLICT
There is no way to be honest without inciting conflict. You can be the nicest guy in the world, but if you’re honest, someone’s going to get pissed off. Don’t believe me?
Look at what happened to Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi. Hell, Western civilization revolves around the idea of one guy getting whacked for being a decent bloke.
But when you fear confrontation or reprisals, you’ll do your best to never be honest. You’ll supplicate, you’ll amend and filter your opinion until you either have no idea who you are, you’re walked all over by others, or both.
Ironically, you do this to become more likable to others. Not only is this vain and insecure, but as I said in an earlier article, the best way to actually be likable is to embrace being unlikeable. Go figure.
5) RISK YOUR CERTAINTIES
Beliefs and intellectual opinions are some of the things we hold closest to us. But they’re often the most confining.
The easiest example of this is the divide in US Politics. Guys on the Right shout about how the Left are all Marxists and must be silenced at all costs, and guys on the Left shout about how the Right are all fascists whilst simultaneously recommending kids in MAGA hats get beaten up. Neither listens to the other, both shout at great volume, and both think they have all the answers.
The right answer probably lies somewhere in between. A little bit of left and a little bit of right. But being locked in zero empathy certainties does nobody any help. Not only does it shut down discourse, but it’s fundamentally unintelligent and fearful.
You don’t become intelligent and confident by only understanding one side of a debate. And whether this is politics, religion, economics, or just the basic everyday opinions you have about yourself and other people – you owe it to yourself to challenge them.
Because it is in challenging them that you not only form unique opinions and get closer to the truth, but you also begin to face why you were clinging so tightly to those beliefs in the first place.
THE COSTS OF NOT TAKING RISKS
The cost of taking any risk is failure. If you were to take any of the risks listed above, you would be exposing yourself to the (possibly bleak) reality of your potential, rejection, emotional shame, conflict, and realizing how little you actually know.
And guess what? All of those things suck.
Some of them are painful. All of them make you question yourself. But despite this, all of them are worth it. Because the hidden cost of taking any risk is not taking it at all. Behind the painful outcomes, the embarrassments, and the shame that comes from failing, there’s also the reality of what you and your life will be if you don’t take the risk at all.
Sometimes this will mean you’ll stay exactly the same. Many times it’ll actually mean you’ll get worse – growing into someone bitter, who resents the opportunities they let slip away. Always wondering “what if?”
Because that “what if” is the biggest price to pay. We all have to choose a life, to commit to certain things and discard others – but we all want to make that choice from a place of freedom, not fear. And it is making it from fear that has us paying that price.
The real cost of not taking risks isn’t the potential you see in your dream, in someone else’s life, or on a movie. It’s the potential you have no idea that exists. The potential you have no certainty of and have to attempt to discover.
Because just like Mohandas, Leo, or Sly – until you try, you’ll have no idea.