Today’s New Year’s Day: a fresh blank page of a year stretches before us, ready for us to write whole new stories.
Stories which, if they’re to be truly new, involve the unknown, take us further than we’ve gone before, involve the risks of both failure and reward.
Risk. It’s a small word that seems to loom larger and larger in our present culture. Everyone’s now an ‘entrepreneur’, challenged to take risks in spheres both business and personal, both large and small.
The internet is awash with inspirational quotes reminding us that “You will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do”, or that “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
These are important reminders.
Generally speaking we’re biologically wired to avoid risks. Our primary instinct’s for survival; if a man-eating tiger enters a crowded room, the gene pool favours those who flee than those who stay behind to ask quite HOW sharp those teeth and claws are.
Perhaps we’re each born with a risk ‘thermostat’ setting; some people run on adrenaline and dopamine and don’t feel alive unless they’re pushing themselves and what they’re capable of to the limit, be that through physical activity or in the boardroom. God bless them for being the awesome beings they undoubtedly are, and I couldn’t be one of them for all the tea in the entire Asian continent; I’m cut from a quieter cloth and would far rather run on peppermint tea and quiet time in the library thankyouverymuch.
I discussed risk with an old friend last summer. A mother of two girls, her eldest is fearless; the kind of 7-year-old who’ll run across the road to speak to an adult she DOESN’T know. Her youngest daughter is the complete opposite; a text-book four-year old, she’s clingy and fearful of potential dangers.
My friend tried to explain to her eldest why she shouldn’t run across roads: “Because a car could hit you and then you’ll be squashed on the road and dead“. Her eldest’s reply? “Hmm .. I wonder what it feels like to be dead…” All her youngest daughter could do was cling to her mother and wail at the thought of her big sister dying.
My friend shook her head whilst she recounted all this, and sighed. “It often feels like I’m trying to pull them both towards the centre,” she noted, “and away from such opposite extremes.”
We all have both impulses within us, depending on the context, of course; the risk taker and the risk avoider. Some of us take risks in our professional lives but baulk at the idea of asking someone out: some of us trust our families to support our new pet project, but are terrified of challenging our employer.
Perhaps risks can be divided into two personal categories, too; positive risks and negative risks. Negative risks abandon our true selves; not wanting to look weak or uncool, a teenager may take drugs despite their own misgivings. Or we cut corners because we’re so detached from what we do, or jeopardize relationships we can’t confront consciously (ie ‘accidentally’ letting a partner discover an affair).
These negative risks are as much of a betrayal of ourselves as they may be a betrayal of others. Born out of fear they keep us in a holding pattern, making a show of experimentation but actually keeping us stuck where we are; in suffering. We think we’ve left our comfort zone, but all we’ve done is strengthen its walls.
Positive risk, however, is the sort of stuff that Brene Brown’s latest book Rising Strong, and Lady Gaga’s 2015 Yale speech point to; the risk of being ourselves, of being authentic, of being whole-hearted. It’s this sort of risk that perhaps Anais Nin thought of when she wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
The risk of unfurling ourselves, of blossoming, of allowing the most tender of petals at the centre of our being to be known by another; that is perhaps the essence of vulnerability. And, as Brown has noted, ‘Being ourselves will mean you’re gonna piss some people off. If you’re brave enough to try you’re gonna fall, and you’re gonna fail’. The risk of that fall, of that rejection, is built into its DNA. It’s not about if but when you’re going to fall, how you’ll bounce back, and finding a workable relationship with that knowledge. But regardless of their outcome, positive risks bring their own reward when they allow us to discover that we’re capable of more than we originally imagined. And January is a great time to remind ourselves of that.
When contemplating a new year, it’s easy be caught up in what we didn’t achieve and where we feel we failed, especially when considering our new resolutions. So it’s helpful to list the things we DID do in the previous year; the big-ticket items like getting married or changing jobs, to the everyday items like the books we read and the strangers we spoke to.
In my own life last year I competed my dream to attend the Royal Academy’s Summer exhibition, wrote websites, gained closure with someone, saw the Dalai Lama and visited Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square for the first time in ten years.
I also took the risk of holding my first stress resilience workshop this summer, with PhD students at the University of Liverpool’s Global Health and Infection department;
As someone with chronic health issues who’s never lead a workshop before, I genuinely didn’t know if I could do it. So the sense of service and triumph I experienced afterwards along with the positive feedback absolutely endorsed stepping so far out of my comfort zone.
On a day-to-day level, my mobility challenges mean that I risk being completely immobilised by exhaustion every time I leave the house. Sure, I manage the risk through careful planning and pacing, but I live with it all the same. The rewards of last year outweighed the risks, though. And, after years of trial and error, I know I’m resilient enough to cope with what may happen. I make sure the risks I take are positive ones which help my growth, and nurture myself as much as possible to strengthen that resilience.
A risk check-list for New Years Resolutions
- Nurture then manage
I’m a big fan of nurturing first then managing, be it with myself or others. Once our emotions are soothed, we’re more resourceful to make changes. How can you support and nurture yourself whilst taking your risks? With the workshop I factored in plenty of rest before and afterwards, held it in a cool, quiet environment, dimmed the lighting and remained seated. Will ensuring good food and scheduling time to relax support you with your plans?
- Will the risk take me towards or away from who I am and how I want to feel?
A great way to know if a risk is worth taking is to tune into how you want the result to make you feel. I know that things that help me feel inspired, luminous and free are worth the pain, immobilisation and house-bound exhaustion afterwards.
- Who can support me with this and, most importantly, if/when I fail?
We’re wired for love and belonging, and having people who support us is crucial for our wellbeing. This is never more important than when we fail. Having someone who can remind us that we’re not alone in what we’re going through is a powerful way to dissolve the shame of failure.
- How does this fit into my bigger picture of who I want to be?
When I go out, even if it’s just to do my groceries (which remains a physical challenge), it reinforces my belief in myself as an independent woman who has something to contribute to the world – even if that particular day’s contribution is as small as giving a smile to a fellow driver or shopper. A friend who shares my chronic health condition recently transformed his life and took unprecedented risks last year to step closer to who he wants to be; independent, in a relationship, and fully recovered.
- Give yourself permission not just to fail, but to take a day off from taking risks.
Risk-taking can be, by its very definition, exhausting. Our comfort zone is comfortable for a reason; we know where we are within it, WHO we are within it. Stepping outside of that zone doesn’t just redefine what we’re capable of, but also our story about who WE are, now our self-perception has been challenged.
I’ve had a bunch of times in my life (and, as sure as eggs are eggs, I’m damn sure I will have again) where I’ve been in so much overwhelm that taking certain risks, taking ANY risks, is just a stretch too far for my meagre emotional resources. This is where self-compassion MUST come in.
Not taking a risk is one thing, but endlessly beating ourselves up for not taking it .. yeah, you’re not alone, honey. Stepping out of our comfort zones takes considerable self-trust, and we can only develop that trust with ourselves the same way we do with others; with time, with tenderness, with being impeccable with the constancy of our loving actions.
Regardless of whether we like them barely nudged or cranked up to eleven, I know that our risk thermostatic settings can be adjusted, as with our happiness thermostats.
What are you going to take a risk with this year? What new story are you going to write on this whole new blank page?