The Riskiest Risk is Avoiding Risks

Experience shows that the magic in life takes place at the edges of our comfort zones. By science [1], we know our minds grow by expanding our boundaries, trying new things and having some adventure. Why then do many retirees spend so much time avoiding the things that we know bring happiness and make like worth living? What keeps us from growth?

I often hear from people who congratulate me for being brave or fearless, and I appreciate it, but I am nothing of the sort. Overcoming and rationally assessing fears is hugely different than being fearless. I have no desire to be fearless, but I strive to keep my fears in perspective. The only adults I have known who were truly fearless were psychopaths or ones who had had their judgment temporarily impaired by some form of “liquid courage.” I don’t recall good outcomes for any of them.

The trail we trekked in Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China

The trail we trekked in Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China

Always living on defense as the clock, (the biggest thief of dreams) ticks down is not the recipe for an extraordinary life. We put things into perspective and calculate our risks keeping in mind that, long term, for a fulfilling life there nothing riskier than complacency and stagnation. Living our dreams is seldom without risk, but the biggest risk of all is never giving our dreams a chance.

The world changes. We need to continually assess and make choices about how we will react to that change. Yes, choices always come with risk, but they also bring opportunities. Failing to evaluate and perpetually staying the course results in either getting hopelessly lost or stagnating. I find the unhappiest, most bitter people that I know are those who have not adjusted while the world changed around them; Those who are unwilling to risk reevaluating their fears and prejudices; Those who seek only confirmation of what they already know and are unopen to other viewpoints. Instead of expanding their worlds, everything gets smaller and more frightening.

If you want to live large, begin by evaluating your fears and strive to overcome the irrational ones that are holding you back. If you dream of a different or happier life but don’t risk change, nothing new is going to happen. Taking calculated risks emboldens us, keeps us engaged and exposes us to new horizons. As Bob Dylan said, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.”

Many retirees reach a certain level of comfort then expend little effort other than trying to sustain their comfortable plateau. They live in fear of losing what they have instead of recognizing the heights they can achieve just by opening their minds and expanding their comfort zones a bit. The settle for “good enough.” Instead of risking change, they short change themselves by desperately clinging to their version of the status quo.

Bad things happen. They happen to everyone. But, by prioritizing security over being “busy being born,” our world shrinks, and we stagnate. Heller Keller put it better than I ever could when she said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It 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 outright exposure. Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

So, begrudgingly, I will admit that I do take a few more risks than other people, but they are analyzed and weighed against what I see as unhappy alternatives. In the end, we all wind up at the same place. You can spend your existence limiting yourself and giving into your fears, or you can learn to control them and greatly enrich your life. Again, this is a choice.

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Author: Jonathan Look

In 2011 Jonathan Look decided to change his life and pursue adventures instead of comfort and possessions. His goal is to travel the world solo; one country at a time, one year at a time. To accomplish this he got rid of most of his possessions, packed up what little he saw as necessities and headed out. His goal is to spend ten years discovering new places, meeting new people and taking the time to learn about them, their values and their place on this tiny planet. He embraces the philosophy that says a person is the sum of their experiences and rejects the fraud of modern consumerism that makes people into slaves of their consumption. He doesn't intend to be modern day ascetic, just more mindful of his place in the world and to make decisions according to that new standard.

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1 Comment

  1. Totally agree… I am not as adventurous (am a devoted grandma to two little boys and am married), but we do travel as frequently as we can. We are both 64; I am retired and husband still working PT. When we moved from the DC area after 28 years to Louisiana in 2013 to be closer to our older girl and her husband who were planning a family, our DC friends thought we were out of our minds. It turned out to be the best move of our lives in many ways, and this year in a way we could not foresee. We’ve taken up many new interests, it’s less expensive to live here than DC, and this year both of us were diagnosed with cancer. It is so much better to be near family when you go through something like this! My husband’s recovery is complete, and my radiation treatments for breast cancer have only one more week to go. We have a small home on the Gulf Coast (going soon for nearly a month), and have several trips on for next year, including one to Eastern Europe to explore our roots. Although we’ve always done a lot of different things, this year has reinforced our view that good health will not last forever. I have been doing genealogy off and on for over 20 years, and have decided not to delay seeing my ancestors’ birthplaces any longer! I also plan to train to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, which I hope to do in a couple of years. Oh, and more time at the beach too! I enjoyed your blog!

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