For many years, I waited for certainty before taking any action. I abhorred taking risks, and made every effort to make life as predictable and certain as possible. It seemed like a good strategy, only it had two major flaws: One, life can never be predictable; and two, if you don’t take risks you will accomplish very little.
The quote for this essay is taken from An Iron Will, a book by self-help writer Orison Swett Marden, who flourished just over a century ago. His own life reads as an example of what he encourages in his books. But this sentence, mixed in among numerous others of an aphoristic and self-help nature, stuck out because it cites an interesting twist in the quest for self-improvement. We can strive to make ourselves better and better – healthier, smarter, thriftier – but no matter how excellent we ourselves become, we are constantly up against the fact that life inherently contains risk.
I was inspired by Marden’s quote because I found that in my quest for self-improvement, I was starting to demand predictability from everything, and faced the realization that moving forward with my life was not as easy as I’d thought. Reaching success involves a tolerance for fear and an acceptance that things sometimes just don’t go your way.
This is not a new concept: Ben Franklin, in his quest for perfectionism, observed that keeping order of the things around him was the one nut he couldn’t crack. Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now says that “if” is the middle word in “life” – an observation that is as true orthographically as it is metaphorically.
However, how many of us are held back by this fear of risk? How many of us long for a life that is free of chance, where our success can be reduced to a mathematical certainty because we feel we are doing everything right?
Most of us acknowledge that life itself has elements of chance. Yet we somehow feel that when it concerns us personally, chance should not be involved.
Any successful businessman will tell you that starting his company involved risk. Any type of student runs the risk of failure. And so does every artist.
The ability to take risks is really the ability to acknowledge the fear of failure, and to put your best foot forward anyway. Anyone who risks his money, his time, and his hard work does not do so lightly, and is not ignorant of the risks involved. However, he is aware that without taking that risk, he cannot move forward.
And that’s what Marden is saying in his quote: that if you want to succeed, taking risks is part of the formula. In the equation for success, it is the variable that we can try to minimize but which we can never totally eliminate. You can choose a life of no risks, but it becomes a rather unfulfilled life. You cannot “win” the hand of your spouse if you don’t risk letting your feelings grow, you can’t travel if you insist that everything goes according to plan.
The more you start to hate uncertainty, the smaller your life becomes. And the more you wait for certainty, the more you postpone making accomplishments.
So don’t spend your life waiting. That’s not what winners do!
–By Tom McKinley, author of Winning the Fight to Be Happy and Make the Right Decisions Early.
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