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a man leaps from a cliff into water

Fear is relative.

I learned that lesson on top of New York’s Empire State Building when I was 7 years old. While my dad and brother peered over the guardrail to gawk at the miniature metropolis below, I stood there, frozen and ashamed, with my back plastered against the concrete wall. I was amazed and envious. “Why is it so easy for them,” I wondered, “but so hard for me?”

You see, I’m afraid of heights – a fear that wouldn’t be all that unusual if it weren’t for the fact that I’m a former professional high diver. Yep. For seven life-changing years, I traveled throughout North America and Europe with the U.S. High Diving Team, taking some 1,500 death-defying leaps into waters a hundred feet below.

Most of us have mixed feelings about risk, in part because we sense that facing the things we fear can present solutions to our internal dilemmas. Risk is something you want and don’t want, all at the same time. It tempts you with its rewards yet repels you with its uncertainties.

Take high diving, for instance. It’s been called a testament to man’s indulgent pursuit of the insignificant. After all, what did my own high-flying feats prove? That I could withstand two and a half seconds of plummeting hell? So what? The answer lies in my confrontation with my limitations and fears. For me, taking a high dive was more than an act of bravado or a flight of fancy. It was an act of liberation.

Like it or not, taking risks is an inevitable and in-escapable part of life. Whether you’re grappling with the possibility of getting married, starting a business, making a high-stakes investment, or taking some other life or career leap of consequence, one of these days, you’ll wind up confronting your own personal high dive.

Taking and Avoiding Risks

When it comes to risk taking, it’s tempting to sort people into two simplistic, sweeping categories – those who do and those who don’t. This absolutist mindset presupposes that if you take risks in one part of your life, you’ll take them in all other parts of your life.

Poke this assumption, however, and it falls apart. For instance, my late grandmother spoke her mind, asserting the boldest of opinions, but she never mustered up the courage to learn how to drive. Meanwhile, a buddy of mine – a tough-minded cop – “runs-and-guns” on the streets of Newark but can barely tell his wife he loves her because it makes him feel all squishy inside.

The reality is, we’re all risk takers and risk avoiders. We simply take or avoid risks in different domains, for different reasons. And while the experience of struggling with a risk decision is universal, the process of deciding which risks to take and which to avoid is highly personal. We’re left to answer for ourselves a basic, yet profound, risk-discerning question: Is this the right risk for me?

A risk that is right for you may seem absurdly dangerous to others, making it difficult to win outside support. When I left a secure, high-paying consulting job to start my own business, my father was astounded. “Are you crazy?” he screamed. “Why in the hell would you throw away such a good thing?”

Yet every risk can be split in two – the risk of action and the risk of inaction. If a risk is right, the real harm comes in letting the opportunity pass by. Though my dad begged to differ, it was far more dangerous for me to stay in a comfortable yet unchallenging position than to strike out on my own.

10 Guiding Principles of Right Risk

If a risk is right for you, don’t let reason get in the way of passion. A “right risk” isn’t a function of safety or security or raw odds. It’s a function of compatibility: A risk that’s right for you may be a folly for someone else. And a risk that’s right for someone else may be entirely wrong for you.

How do you know if a risk is right for you? And, if it is right, how do you find the wisdom and the courage to go for it when it’s so much easier not to? I suggest 10 fundamental, guiding principles – a strong platform for risking right:

  1. Find your golden silence. Hush the external and internal noise to hear your intuitive, innermost voice. Disconnect from your technological tethers. Seek solitude and silence in big and small ways – from retreating to a quiet, sacred place once a year to turning off the radio on your commute to work.
  2. Defy inertia. Give up the “static quo” of your comfort zone. Do something. Break down a risk into smaller, safer steps. Hire a coach. Or create a little desperation with a sink-or-swim approach: Make risk the vehicle that moves you from where you are to where you want to be.
  3. Write your risk scripts. Put an end to the negative self-talk. Whether it’s “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t,” or some other outdated line, revise your old, limiting scripts with a new, personal mantra. Then “walk the talk” by seeking out risks that affirm your future, not your past.
  4. Turn on the pressure. Push yourself a little – or a lot. Ask family, friends and colleagues to nudge you, too. Create the kind of “purposeful anxiety” that gives you little choice but to take the risk and keep going.
  5. Put yourself on the line. Play it “un-safe.” Be willing to sacrifice your image and your security to do what you believe is right. Make taking the risk more important than playing it safe. And put some skin in the game with a personal investment.
  6. Make fear work for you. Work your fear. Let it sharpen your focus and arouse your spirit. Let fear fuel your ability to take and even enjoy the risk. Find the right balance of fear – more than too little and less than too much – and transform your fear into action.
  7. Have the courage to be courageous. Exercise your courage, not your cowardice, by acting in the face of fear. Know that courage is full of fear – knee-knocking, teeth-chattering fear – but it insists you take the risk anyway.
  8. Be perfectly imperfect. Accept the trial and the error. Embrace the messiness and the mistakes. And surrender to the loss of control that goes with the risk-taking territory.
  9. Trespass continually. Be willing to disappoint or even disobey others. Say “yes” to yourself, even when it means saying “no” to those who matter most to you. Make personal fidelity more important than pleasing others. Misbehave when necessary: It’s worth the risk.
  10. Expose yourself. Get personal by revealing yourself to others. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Own your positions, no matter how unpopular. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Take the risk of sharing your true feelings and building deep, enduring relationships. Dare to be authentic.

In many ways, the rightest and bravest risk of all is simply daring to be yourself – your whole self – even if that means losing stature, money, prestige or the identity that others prefer. To commit to that kind of self-honesty and personal fidelity changes everything.

For most of us, it represents a giant leap into unknown and sometimes dangerous territory. Ultimately, though, all giant leaps are leaps of faith. Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that when you take leaps of faith, unseen hands are there to catch you. Providence works if you let it. But we have to be the ones to make the first move. We have to step off the platform.

The Four Ps of Right Risk

  1. PASSION: Right Risks are risks we care about intensely. Right Risks are often ordeals, and ordeals involve suffering. The word “passion” comes from the Latin verb pati, literally translated as “to suffer.” By arousing the strongest, most untamed parts of our nature, and stirring up the wild mustangs in our soul, our passion gives us the raw energy and wherewithal to suffer through the anguishing moments that often accompany Right Risk.
  2. PURPOSE: A Right Risk is taken out of a deep sense of purpose. Purpose serves to harness the wild horses of our passion and give them direction. Right Risks are rich with meaning. They stand for something beyond sensory or ego gratification. Rather than ask, “Will it feel good? What will I get or What will I lose?” the Right Risk taker asks, “How will this risk make me a more complete person? How will this risk further my life’s purpose?”
  3. PRINCIPLE: Right Risks are governed by a set of values that are both essential and virtuous. As mentioned, risks are essentially decisions, and when facing a decision of consequences, principles form a set of criteria against which the risk can be judged. The principles that Right Risk takers often use as the basis of their decision making include truth, justice, independence, freedom, mercy, compassion and responsibility.
  4. PREROGATIVE: Right Risk taking involves the exercise of choice. Right Risk takers view the power to choose as a privilege, and then honor it as such. By consistently making choices at a conscious level, they are better able to make superior judgment calls at an instinctual level – in fast-moving situations.

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This article has been updated. It originally appeared as “Right Risk” in the January/February 2004 issue of Experience Life.

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