Can You Lead a Meaningful Life Without Taking Any Risks?
01.19.18

When I was a kid, one of the things I loved to do was layer my socks — bright pink over turquoise, rolling them to make a rainbow, my Keds laced loosely to accommodate the added bulk. I’m fairly certain no one ever told me this looked cool. Like most things I did at that age, I wore the socks because I liked them, because it felt good to smile, because I enjoyed my curious consciousness, the weird brain I was growing, the magic of this new world.

I don’t remember when I stopped wearing awesome sock rainbows, but I did — probably because someone sneered at them or because I realized everyone else had white ankle socks and I should probably have them, too. I grew into a person who routinely made my mom drive me to school because I missed the bus trying to figure out what to wear and then had her DRIVE ME HOME AGAIN because I got there and realized I looked too idiotic to live.

I was fearless when I was young; all kids are. We are born with a primal urge to test ourselves, wave our limbs around to see what they can do, peer over the ledge to the great wide beyond. Imagine where humans would have stalled out were we not naturally inclined to risk; if not for that first idiot baby who decided to stand up on two legs, we’d be scaly-bellied slug people still slithering safely along the ground.

As we grow up, we lose the feral nerve that once came so easily. “Taking a risk” becomes code for “humiliation,” for “stupidity,” for “that time you flailed your way through a routine set to ‘Smooth’ by Santana during your dance team audition.”

It is easy, in other words, to feel that a life lived on the right side of that line is safer than constantly stepping over it. But what happens if you stop courting risk? Can you live a meaningful life without ever taking any risks?

A life without risk is a strange thing to contemplate, in part because the risk-taker is such a culturally romantic figure. “Live each day as if it were your last!” the magnets scream, leaving those of us who aren’t sold on the idea of meth-fueled skydiving feeling small and shameful in our desire to remain firmly on the ground, maybe in a corner, enjoying a nice book. I think of myself as someone guided by routine and predictability, my risks confined to trying a new sheet mask. But I’m writing this in a new apartment in a new part of the world where I moved months earlier with a new person, a partner for whom I gave up a job, a city, a life I’d built for myself. Was that a risk? Sure, although it didn’t feel that way at the time. At the time, it felt inevitable — I didn’t question whether I would go because I didn’t question that my life, in this moment, is meant to be twinned with his.

And that is the beauty of risk: It is self-determinative. We get to decide what it is that brings us to the edge. One person’s “I’m quitting my job to travel the world!” is another person’s “Almond milk instead of soy, kind sir!” You are the only one who gets to determine what feels bold, what action will prompt that widening of spirit. And truthfully, simply getting out of bed each morning means allowing for disaster; it means releasing some of the stranglehold of control we attempt to exert over our lives.

One of my favorite thinkers, Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, talks about the “exquisite risk” of living (a phrase borrowed from poet Mark Nepo):

Every time we open up out of our familiar cocoon to contact a wider reality, to really touch aliveness more fully, we are taking the exquisite risk. … We are willing to let go of an old experience that gave us some measure of comfort, security or certainty and exchange it for what is unfamiliar and way more alive.

The “exquisite risk,” she says, is daring to live from a place of true openness, a place where we aren’t shielded by our pre-existing ideas of who we are and what is acceptable. Operating from that place — a place of “unconditional presence” — is a risk, yes, but also the only way to discover both what we are capable of and what we truly want. Risk is the path by which we become more fundamentally ourselves.

It’s this duality that makes risk so compelling and so necessary. Taking risks allows us not only to grow but to more deeply understand what we won’t sacrifice or what makes us feel unsafe. Risk can be a coiling in on ourselves as much as it is a reaching out, as we get to know ourselves more deeply through brushing up against our terror and rapture.

As for what constitutes “a meaningful life,” I think it’s a life in which we are fully participatory. It is a life in which we are most present, in which we explore and create and love as our most honest selves. The only way we get to know that self is by pressing up against our walls, learning what feels good, what opens us up and what makes us unique.

Perhaps that means saying yes when we want to say no, or vice versa; maybe it means courting humiliation not by doing what scares us, but by doing what excites us; maybe it’s the daunting work of figuring out what those things are by spending more time with ourselves and our thoughts. After all, turning inward can be risky — it makes it much more difficult to hide.

Collage by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Yes, I fully agree, especially with this statement in your piece, “And that is the beauty of risk: It is self-determinative. We get to decide what it is that brings us to the edge. One person’s “I’m quitting my job to travel the world!” is another person’s “Almond milk instead of soy, kind sir!” You are the only one who gets to determine what feels bold, what action will prompt that widening of spirit.”

    It really is such a subjectively-defined word, and means something different to everyone. I fall in the almond milk instead of soy milk camp, and I am perfectly content with that.

    • Mariana

      That was also my favourite part of the post.
      I am not a risk taker, I am a person that over analyses every little thing about change and end up not changing in order to have immediate peace of mind (but long time regretment, sometimes).
      With social media, where everyone posts their “taking 2 years abroad to study MBA” or “going 6 months to Nigeria to help an community”, we kind of feel that we don’t risk enough.
      That being said, even though I know I have work to do, that “almond vs soy milk” made me feel better about my risk taking habilities. Not everything has to be skydiving or you’re boring. 🙂

  • Adrianna

    I recently adopted a new cat, and that will certainly feel like a risk if he decides to die on me prematurely.

    I grew up in a low-income, single parent household. I was only a young college student then, but I’ve recently realized how much just being a witness to the 2008 recession influenced me. Yes, quitting your job to travel the world is a risk. But so is marrying your college sweetheart and buying a seemingly modest house.

    Like a lot of people in NYC, I am a “transplant.” I kind of just ended up here, because NYU gave me the most financial aid. (Which ironically, was the first adult decision I made to minimize risk.) I’ve subsequently met a lot of intense people who were constantly chasing “risks” whereas I made decisions to remain in the same rent-controlled apartment for 8.5 years. I spent the last ten years creating the stability I lacked as a child – so much so that it took me five years to move in with a long term boyfriend.

    • My cat fulfills me in a way that literally no other living thing does. Definitely a risk worth taking (keep some money in the bank for vet bills though holy s**t that stuff can get expensive).

      • Adopting a pet is a huge risk! They are monsters and lifesavers, both. And they will upend your priorities and plans with a flick of their tails. Congratulations!

        • Adrianna

          Tell me about it. My boyfriend bought a puppy from a pet store when he was 20, and now admits he didn’t fully know what he was getting himself into. (He also knows buying a purebred puppy wasn’t wise.) He never established any real boundaries with the dog until a couple of years ago, so we’re left with a very anxious, dependent dog that whines or cries most nights. (The dog’s 9 years old, I’ve been around for 6 years.) Ironically, the new cat loves the dog!

      • Adrianna

        I love cats!! I’ve almost always lived with 1-3 cats, whether it was a family pet or my roommate’s. I recently moved in with my boyfriend (and his dog, hiss) so of course I had to get a kitty asap. I took in a 5 year old tuxedo that had to get re-homed because his previous owners’ newborn was allergic. It’s my boyfriend’s first time living with a cat, so it’s been funny to watch him learn just how weird cats can be.

      • Kiks

        I impulsively adopted two kittens (a brother & sister) five years ago; I’d never had any real pets growing up and had actually only ever met one cat that I liked. It just seemed like a good idea.

        My mental health has taken some beatings the last couple years and I literally don’t know if I would’ve survived without those two. I secretly think they are some sort of angels wrapped in fur sent to remind me everything is ok.

  • Gigi

    It’s strange, because the “road not taken” is a part of each person’s life. It’s unique to no one, but unique for everyone. & if it’s true that most people when asked regret not taking a risk (whatever that was for them) then we know that, I guess, (contemplated/healthy) risk is in fact a fundamental part of life, & unavoidable, & that avoiding it causes pain.

    • kay

      i love this

  • coffeebee

    But wait – your mom would really drive you to school and then back home again to change clothes? Damn.

  • Daniel Szilagyi

    I think it’s interesting now because we’re in an age where we see only the framed, positive side of risk and not the bad…especially in social media where all you tend to see is someone jet setting around the world blowing money they don’t have while working a freelance job.
    Or you hear about that person who quit the cushy good paying job to pursue something more on their own but most of their income comes from patreon or something.

    Stuff like that scares the crap out of me because all it takes is one small missed step and the next thing you know you’re on the streets or just couch surfing with friends.

    I think you can do some amazing and interesting things and not have to make such a life changing choice with the results being either really good or really grim too though.

    • Jam Jam

      I hear you. A lot of what the author is saying reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” thinking, which in itself is hard to translate to today – Campbell himself says he developed these ideas when he couldn’t get a job after the economic crash and he sat around Woodstock for five years just thinking. Who can do that today besides people who have rich parents?
      But as someone in the group you mention – “quit the cushy job to pursue something on their own” – I planned as best I could. I saved up and made big changes because my soul would shrivel if I didn’t. Yes, going off-script is dangerous, but when being on-script is so onerous, I don’t really see it as taking a risk, but as necessary.

      • Daniel Szilagyi

        For sure, i think in cases where you are so unhappy that you are literally almost depressed or worse yet, actually are depressed warrant change in many facets of life.

        I’ve also just read reports of people who are struggling and are the working poor because they choose a career in something that isn’t really in demand ( in this case it was tourism ) and now that person works a just slightly above minimum wage job overnight to be able to pay for rent and barely has enough to eat and is in their mid 30’s

        I think that’s what scary and what most people don’t see anywhere often, just how easy it is to have everything around you go from seemingly good to completely down on your luck and barely hanging on.

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  • Ciccollina

    I think we need to reframe risk as something not just necessary, but crucial. True risk is living life unchallenged and unafraid, never having the courage to go for what you want.

    I am a big believer in the growth mindset, where failure is an opportunity to learn, where talent is something to be grown and nurtured rather than simply accepted, and where risk is a part of a successful journey.

    In other words: put yourself out there. If you fail, you learn, and people will see your fearlessness and appreciate it. Risk will take you, via one road or another, to where you need to be.

  • Maddy

    This piece really hits home for me. I find that really, making any type of decision is a risk, small or large. There are the inane daily decisions like, weighing the pros and cons of not wearing a jacket out because it ruins the outfit, despite being well aware of cold temperatures. And then there are the “life-changing” decisions like, do I move to another country to be with a partner despite not having a job/friends/family who can support me there? I think that a meaningful life is one that is full of decisions, large or small, high or low risk, of which we are able to take ownership. Although not everything in my life is hunky dory, I feel lucky to be able to say that the decisions that have brought me to where I am today have been my own.

  • Mellisa Scarlett

    Needed every bit of this.

  • Isabel Gutierrez, Tulane ’19

    Growing up with extremely caring, yet worried, parents shaped my brain to stay on the cautious side of living. As a young child, I was not allowed to eat cereal with more than 13g of sugar, ride carnival rides, shower during thunderstorms, or jump off of particularly tall things. As a young adult, capable of making these decisions for myself, I tend to feel guilty when I do something that I used not to be able to do or that I know would worry my parents. I now consider spicing up extremely mundane routines or wearing something bold a risk, and take great joy in the exhilarating nervousness that comes with these small dangers.

    I really do appreciate the fact that you take into account that there are varying ideas of risk for different people and that it is impressive to take a risk, period, regardless of the degree of actual danger. Though I am the latter, when it comes to considering either traveling the world or almond milk a risk, I will resolve to be more present, especially when doing something risky, rather than being distracted by the worrying that comes along with taking the risk.