The Benefits of Risk

We’ve heard the quote before, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” This is most widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, and until I went looking for the context of the quote, I would never have known of widespread misattribution. It turns out we owe this gem to Mary Schmich, who used it in a 1997 Chicago Tribune column and a graduation speech. The title of Schmich’s column is intriguing: “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young.” Yet interestingly enough, I think the young can lead the way on teaching us the joy of risk and doing something that scares us. I’ve both pushed my kids to venture beyond their comfort level and closed my eyes hoping to not see their demise during some of their endeavors chosen with clear lack of a developed prefrontal cortex.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Mary Schmich

I’ve had a couple of recent simple experiences that have gotten me thinking about fear. Last week, I enjoyed the pure bliss of swimming with my daughter and some friends. The two kids in the pool were working on longer distances of swimming without stopping, as well as conquering the deep end. They were taking frightful jumps off of the edge and building confidence to move deeper. Then, my girl got crazy and added the corkscrew–a death defying spin while launching herself from the stability of the pool deck! Ok, that may have been hyperbole (a term she’s taught me much about recently). At any rate, as I took some pictures and videos of this feat, I commented on her loud shrieking. As she told me, she screams because it’s scary. “Huh,” I thought…what if we all did some things that scared us?

I spent about 15 years of my life as an avid cyclist, competing in road and track racing events across the country, completing miles of year-round outdoor training rides, and pushing speeds (hello, Pikes Peak Highway) and riding in tight packs on technical courses that occasionally made my hair stand on end. And I liked it! I liked it even though I sometimes experienced painful results of a crash. On a recent leisurely ride with family friends, I commented about my fears of our kids riding too fast down a hill (we have no Pikes Peak here), safely crossing busy intersections, or hitting a patch of sand and sliding across the pavement. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line, I developed fear around the thing I used to do and love the most. What is this? If it’s mature adulthood, I’m not sure I like it. Stay young and fun, kids!

So when do we stop risking and start caring too much about what could go wrong or what others might think? Our kids are willing to expose their silly side often. They show us when they come up with something ridiculous and funny. They wear crazy outfits and sing in front of others. They perform in recitals in front of crowds and play sports with stands full of spectators. They practice new skills, taste foods they’ve never heard of, create art on a regular basis, and make up little games that involve water balloons or outrageous dares. Much of what they do is new (it’s called learning), so they try new things with relative ease. And what happens when they do? Growth! And often there is laughter, too. What would happen if we, as adults, did more to promote our ongoing growth and laugh more?? Tony Robbins tweeted this nugget back in February of 2016, “Stop being afraid of what could go wrong, and start being excited of what could go right.” Amen!

What would happen if we took more chances in our lives? I’m wondering about what holds us back the most and what we might accomplish if we took those things on. Perhaps there’s an entrepreneurial idea, some courses you’ve wanted to take, a skydiving adventure, or a physical challenge you’ve wanted to try. While my daughter was in that pool jumping off the edge and diving down to the bottom, my biggest fear was how I looked in my suit, and I’m glad that didn’t hold me back. Maybe you’re held back by a fear of failure, discipline for the long haul, admitting a need or a struggle, or others’ judgment of whatever that lofty goal inside of you is. What if you said no to those fears and just went for that goal. Take one small step, then another, then another. Or, if it’s your style, go all in. Commit and just do it. I’m guessing that each of us would benefit from tackling a fear that holds us back from something we want to do. I also firmly believe that the world is better off for each of us who conquers that fear and finds something new we have to offer.

Fear is a beast. It strips us of our best selves. It keeps us from fully living. It limits our experience. There is certainly healthy fear, of course. I don’t advocate for facing a fear that likely leads to sudden death or for betting the house on a horse race. It is, however, true that one of the ways we overcome our anxieties (even phobias) is to just start taking them on. We tell that fear, “not today,” and we step into it and live a little more.

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