Updated: Dec 23, 2021
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.” —Helen Keller
I have a love/hate relationship with risk.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.
Here’s how my love/hate dynamic looks from the outside: I talk a big game about my great love for adventure. You don’t have to be around me for long to hear me wax poetic about my longing to explore what’s over that next horizon, or dream about what new discoveries await me on that open sea I’ve never sailed. I plan a handful of expeditions every year, each one an attempt to throw off my common life and take a risky leap into something wild and extraordinary, convinced it will usher me into the electric experience of being fully alive. (See my Instagram for a few curated shots from recent adventures.)
But even as I declare my devotion to a risk-filled life of true adventure, I spend most of my days doing everything I possibly can to eliminate risk from my life. I work hard to create a safe, dependable income. I live in a sturdy house, neatly embedded in the heart of a safe community, I drive a safe car, surround myself with safe friends, and do pretty much everything else I can think of to insulate myself from danger and risk.
Your version of this love/hate dynamic may look different. Maybe you’re a legit daredevil in sports, but freeze up anytime you’re asked to be vulnerable emotionally. Maybe you take huge risks in love, but are terrified to put yourself out there professionally. Whatever your particular inconsistency when it comes to risk, the heart of the struggle is the same…
We ache for the life we desire, but are scared to risk losing what we have.
It comes up all the time in my work with clients—so often, in fact, that we coaches came up with a name for it:
We call it the Reactive Vs. Creative Mindset Problem.
It’s the inner war we all experience between the longing to risk so we can attain something we want, and the strong impulse to draw back so we can preserve what we already have.
Here’s how each of these mindsets work, and compete with each other:
The Reactive Mindset ~ Also known as “Playing Not to Lose,” this is that self-protective instinct inside all of us that seeks to preserve the safety and security of the status quo. In this mindset, life is about creating a zone of comfort and security around your life—i.e. secure job, safe friends, safe neighborhood, that whole thing—and then once it’s built, focusing all of your energy on maintaining it. When something happens that disturbs the peace, you “react” to it by doing all you can to eliminate the disturbance and restore your comfort zone.
The Creative Mindset ~ Also known as “Playing to Win,” this is that adventurous impulse within us that seeks to create the life envisioned by our highest dreams. In this mindset, our longings and desires carry more weight than our doubts and fears. As a result, we become active agents of creative change in our lives. We regularly stretch out of our comfort zone in an attempt to attain something we desire. We focus the bulk of our energy not on protecting the life we have, but on creating the life we want. As you can guess, this mindset not only welcomes a lot of risk, but requires it.
Both of these mindsets live inside you, and every time you think about taking a risk, they leap into that boxing ring in your head and start duking it out. You’re an idiot to do this! No! You can’t pass up this chance! Yeah, well you’re nuts if you think this will work! Shut up! This could be your only opportunity to go after something like this! But what if it doesn’t go well? But what if it does?
It can be a real Battle Royale. But when that final bell rings, which mindset wins is always up to you.
There are, of course, some nice payoffs for letting your Reactive Mindset win: Your life will likely be more ordered and predictable. There won’t be as many surprises. You’ll be comfortable. It may even be a bit safer (though this is probably just an illusion).
But you won’t grow. Like, not ever.
I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but not everyone becomes a better version of themselves over time. Not everyone matures the way they’re meant to. Some never overcome their childhood fears, or break free from old destructive habits, or learn how to actually become the person they were made to be. They just get stuck somewhere along the road to Who They Might Have Been.
There can be various reasons for this, but one of the biggest is this right here:
They’re not playing to win. They’re just playing not to lose.
Here’s an illustration I use a lot in my work with leaders and teams, but its message holds true for individuals as well:
Everybody has a Comfort Zone. It’s your status quo. It’s the life you know, and know how to navigate. Despite the name, it isn’t always comfortable there. Sometimes a Comfort Zone can be really painful, even abusive. But it’s still your Comfort Zone because it’s more comfortable to stay in it than it is to step out.
Everybody also has a Risk Zone. This is where your deep desires live—those things you really want for yourself, or for your life, but don’t yet have. Your highest dreams live in your Risk Zone. The person you really want to become lives there too. Everything new that you want to be, or create, or experience in your life waits for you out there, in that uncomfortable landscape of risk.
Safety. Security. Even Comfort. These things matter.
But they are not what matters most.
What matters most is that you keep growing, so you can fully become the awesome person you are meant to be, and in the process, bring your gift fully to the world.
You can’t do that and live in a Reactive Mindset.
You have to risk to grow.
But be warned: Risk is intrinsically uncomfortable. It forces you to step beyond the edge of what you know, beyond the terrain where you feel confident. It requires you to try things that are beyond your competence. It means not knowing how to do any of it, or where to step next. It means failing, and (worse) being exposed in that failure. It means not having it together, or knowing what to say. It means falling down, and getting up, over and over and over again, until at last you finally figure it out.
It’s not easy at all to choose a life rich in risk.
But there’s no other way to become the person you were meant to be, or to create the life you were meant to live.
What is your current relationship with risk? How might you take more risks this year?
Note: This is Part 1 of a series on risk. You can read Part 2 here.