What’s the Security in Risk-Taking?

Any transformation in life direction begins with a choice to risk failure, and inevitably, the topic of “risk-taking” comes up. The counter-balance to risk-taking is “security”. One might hear, if not in these exact words, “I don’t like to take risks, because I value security.”

Unfortunately, words have a nasty tendency to hide layers of meaning underneath them and thus imprison us in our assumptions of what they mean.

Security is a word associated with safety and comfort and freedom from danger. Whereas risk-taking is associated with the opposite: ‘un-safety’, discomfort, and danger. Association with danger however doesn’t tell us anything about the purpose of risk. What is it really?

To begin with, a risk is the anything that involves the possibility of danger whether physically, emotionally, financially, or even morally. From the moment we are born, there is a risk of getting sick, getting hurt, getting killed, or making mistakes. Thus we are all risk-takers because life is inherently dangerous. Being “risk-free” is always an illusion. Therefore, the question whether of whether one likes or dislikes taking risk is less important than the question of whether we have the capability to make judgments about those dangers.

Risk-taking is what kids do when they are climbing a tree or balancing themselves on a wall without a safety net. They do it because they are testing the limits of their judgment and skills. And by testing their limits, they not only strengthen their skills, but also learn how to handle new challenges. In this way, good risk-taking is something that builds up the judgment and resilience muscles. On the other hand, gambling on slot machines builds up very little capability and judgment and thus it could be said to be a “bad” risk.

Life becomes risky when we do not build up our ability to deal with danger. Yet to build up our ability to deal with danger requires us to expose ourselves to progressively greater levels of danger. If you want to become a better firefighter, you have to learn how to make decisions in dangerous circumstances. If you want to be successful in relationships, you must open yourself up to being vulnerable. If you want to learn how to survive in tough economic times, then you must be willing to become entrepreneurial.

In the end, life is always changing and moving, so what is the insecurity of not taking risks? The insecurity is that if you have not fed yourself on a steady diet of “danger”, when the real danger arrives, you will be ill-equipped.

Don’t lead a risky life. Take risks that stretch you physically, emotionally, intellectually, morally so that you can train and prepare yourself for life!

Risk-Taking for Kids

I was secretly scanning my fiancee’s library and came across a book related to my last post: Too Safe For Their Own Good – How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by Michael Ungar. In it, he gives some thought as to the benefits of properly encouraging and supporting kids who take calculated risks:

  • Risk-takers are more likely to trust their own judgment
  • Risk-takers have learned to respect the capacities of others and themselves
  • Risk-takers know their limits
  • Risk-takers understand the consequences of their actions
  • Risk-takers (when grown up) are the ones who most readily reach out for help
  • Risk-takers confidently assert their independence

Yes, risk-taking has a dark side; many of the kids my fiancee works are in trouble with the law because of their self-destructive risk taking behaviours. But it speaks to the need of guiding kids to engage with productive life challenges.

It should come as no surprise that judgment and capacity can only be developed by engaging with real challenges. There is a big difference between following instructions or complying with an authority and actually exercising your own will to complete a project. When I reflect back to my school days, I realize it was my voluntary extracurricular activities (not necessarily the school work) that allowed me to create my own sense of self and power.

How are we at teaching or encouraging our kids to take risks?

How do we balance are need to protect them from danger and allowing them to make mistakes?

How are we, as adults, at learning to take risks?

In fact, try this question on for size. When was the last time you intentionally took a risk, big or small?