Take chances when you are young, so you can tell stories when you are old.”Author Unknown
If you don’t take risks, you will always work for someone who does.”Author Unknown
Choices, chances, changes. You must make a choice to take a chance or your life will never change.”Zig Ziglar
Stop being afraid of what could go wrong, and start being excited about what could go right.”Tony Robbins
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”Helen Keller
If you want it, go for it. Take a risk. Don’t always play it safe or you’ll die wondering.”Author Unknown
Successful people take BIG risks, knowing they might fall hard. But they might succeed more than they ever dreamed.”Robert Kiyosaki
In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”Lewis Carroll
First of all, I absolutely LOVE all of those quotes. They get me fired up to take risks and be daring and go around saying, “You only live once, bitches, let’s get crazy.” But then, when I stop reading peppy quotes and get back inside my head, I remember that I’m a lifelong failure. Or at least that’s where my mind defaults. I know I’ve had successes, but that’s not how some minds work. It takes concerted effort to recall those minor successes before being bogged down with the feelings of failure.
But even when those feelings sort of overlap, the feelings of failure absolutely dominate. And then I start creating my own quotes. And they’re always these dichotomous, oxymoronic, contradictory, vomit filled regurgitations that all took forty-one years to get a good, thick skin on them. Stuff like this:
“Failure breeds wisdom. It also breeds fear.”
“Failure builds determination and perseverance. It also squashes drive and grit and the ole “can do” mentality.”
“Failure is a teacher, and a damn good one. It is also a terrorist, and likewise a damn good one.”
And when I’m done, the peppy feel-good quotes no longer matter. Whatever this risky adventure I had myself all psyched up for, I have now talked myself out of it and completely changed my mind, even though each of these pearls of wisdom attempts to take a positive spin before exploding in mid-air. The problem with all of them is that they perform the not-so-subtle job of reminding me that I’m a lifelong failure. So instead of doing something nutty or risky or putting myself “out there” to take a chance on being judged or ridiculed, I instead talk myself out of it and then go write about something to make me feel better.
I’m sorry, but I absolutely LOVE the writing, and I will do this until the day I die because my kids will know their daddy better than any kid in America knows their father, but there’s nothing all that exciting and risky about it. It’s part of who I am now, which means this is now my comfort zone. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still absolutely thrilled that I took what was a very difficult plunge nine months ago and put myself “out there” to write about this journey of sobriety and of seeking my Holy Grail of contentment and peace.
But there still has to be more. I will not settle for only this. If I do, that quote above about only regretting the chances we didn’t take will be a weighty quote resting firmly on my chest, shoulders, and mind as I one day lie on my deathbed.
But what THAT actually means is that I have to answer a series of questions that are sort of scaffolded upon each other every time I consider taking a risk. And a couple of them are really, really difficult to answer truthfully, so I have only actually answered them all about twice in the last twenty years. But here they are anyway:
First question: What do I actually have to lose by taking a chance? Second question: Am I prepared for what might change if I succeed? And the third question – perhaps the most important because it’s a question that is itself risky: How can I actually prepare for failure in such a way that I am pleased with the outcome so completely that it will actually IMPROVE my self-esteem and confidence? In other words, how in the hell can I be proud of myself for failing? And I’m not talking about just being proud of myself for trying. I’m talking about truly being content with failure.
Since I’ve only successfully answered those questions once or twice in the past two decades, it makes sense that there have been a BUNCH of other occasions where I just couldn’t pull the trigger on something I really wanted to do. In almost every case, I remember having to think some pretty nutty thoughts and ideas before I was able to successfully regret whatever it was I should have done. And I know you’re thinking, “Wait, what?” But hear me out. It actually makes sense. Let’s take them one question at a time.
This one is by far the easiest to answer. What do I actually have to lose by taking a chance? The answer is and will always be, “Absolutely nothing.” And why is that? Because a single human being is one of the most insignificant occupants of the galaxy. If one of us, a bunch of us, or even millions of us were wiped out today, the world would actually be a BETTER place because the natural resources we destroy would last longer. We do not matter AT ALL. Take it even further and that means that the risks we take don’t matter AT ALL. So that makes question one pretty easy, and we have no need for nutty thoughts or ideas.
We actually have no need to even discuss it further. Unless your “risk” is jumping from an airplane with a grocery bag for a parachute (or something equally as suicidal,) and as long as the risk is a true, burning desire of your heart that cannot be appeased any other way, the answer to question one will always be “I have absolutely nothing to lose by taking this risk.”
When we get to question two, however, we get to a place where the nutty thoughts and ideas hang out most days, and they do some crazy shit. The question is, “Am I prepared for what might change if I succeed?” Keep in mind at this stage that I have always had a dreamer’s mind, and the only thing that two decades of drunkenness did to that mind was to make it stop taking the chances that emerge from these questions. But that dreamer’s mind still goes through that second question as if the end result will be taking the risk I desperately want to take.
Let’s go through an example of a risk I wanted to take and what this did to my mind during this second question. This is a fairly benign risk, but my description will highlight how and why my thoughts and ideas get nutty. The risk I once contemplated occurred when I was getting my Master of Arts in Teaching degree seven or eight years ago, and when I graduated, I started looking around at doctoral programs so that I would know how to proceed with my first couple of years teaching to prepare for something as daunting (and risky) as getting a doctorate. Pretty boring and vanilla, right? That’s done by design for this example to illustrate how insane I might be.
Once again, the question is, “Am I prepared for what might change if I succeed?” and I’d like to remind you before I go through some of my nutty thoughts and ideas that I was still a single man at this time in my life. Also, I did not think about the actual process of getting the doctorate, I tried to envision my life AFTER receiving it.
All the ladies would call me Dr. Lee, of course, and this would mean we would be introduced as Dr. and Mrs. Lee should one of these ladies and I get married. I could become a university professor with a doctorate, and I wondered if my students would think I was the “hot” professor (if I had started my doctorate back then, I would be graduating about now, with a head full of gray hair and a BMI teetering just below the “obese” ratings, but in this dream, I was going to be the “hot” professor. HA!!)
But I also thought of my career arc, how I would start as an associate professor and move on up to a tenured position and then chair of my department and then president of the university. And then, upon retirement, at least six corporations would recruit me to become a member of their board of directors, whereby they would each pay me an annual retainer of about two hundred grand.
One of my students would also become a famous professional basketball player and I would be invited to sit courtside at a game, and at that game, I would be discovered by a television producer and asked to star in a new afternoon talk show in the same vein as “The Doctors” only this one would be called “The Professors” and we would debate issues of the day in a fun but academic manner. It would, of course, win me an Emmy for Daytime Variety Show. I would then begin dating a new Hollywood starlet every three months (me in my 60’s, her in her 30’s, of course,) and so I would walk red carpets at every awards show, and this would of course lead somehow to me being asked to be the guest speaker at a presidential inauguration. My own.
Because all of that is reasonable to dream, right? But this is how the mind of a dreamer works. Sure, this is a little satirical and I embellished a little here because I don’t really remember my dreams from almost a decade ago, but based on that example, can you imagine the pressure my own mind puts on me to answer a question as simple as, “Am I prepared for what might change if I succeed?”
Those nutty thoughts didn’t actually help answer the question, though. Not even close. In that example, my dreams bounced around to all the highlights. (And yes, I’m aware that a 60 year old with a heart condition dating a 30 year old Hollywood starlet might not necessarily fit the description of a “highlight,” but I guess there are worse ways for a heart to completely explode.)
But what about all the little things that might change if you succeed. Does it change your career path? Does it affect your family time or family life in a negative or positive way? Or does it add stress that maybe you haven’t anticipated? This is the question where you MUST consider all the little things that might change, but after so many years of allowing this to be the answer where my desired risk dies in committee, I’m gaining the opinion that you should definitely consider this question (in my case, my family depends on me answering this question,) but a negative response should not necessarily lead you to abandon your risk. There is absolutely no way to get to question three without getting question two behind you. And that means question two CANNOT stop you from taking that risk.
This is the biggie; the question where lots of dreams die very safe, very isolated deaths. These are the deaths that absolutely nobody hears about. And why is that? Because when you abandon your dream at this stage, you were so close to jumping that you don’t even want to admit how close you were. And why is that? Because this is one of those regrets that will haunt you when you get older. And because of that, you don’t want to ever address it. You think that if you don’t, you’ll forget about it, too.
But you won’t. The grief will stay with you forever. The fact that you never took a chance will haunt you – the what ifs, the maybes, the I wish-I-hads – until the day the dementia takes over.
Question three is very simple in word but so very hard in practice. How can I be proud of myself if I fail? How can I actually prepare for failure in such a way that I am pleased with the outcome so completely that it will actually IMPROVE my self-esteem and confidence? In other words, how can I take a risk, fail, and not only will it NOT destroy the shifting sands of my foundational self-worth, the integrity and pride and effort and manner in which I attacked this risk will actually harden those sands and make for a steadier self-worth and stronger confidence going forward?
I’ve thought about this question for hours. Literally probably hundreds of hours in my lifetime. It might not have been asked the same way in my head, but I’ve spent so, so much time on this basic question. It makes sense that if I had the correct answer, I wouldn’t need to spend so much time on it, right? I don’t need to answer that one; I know I’ve never had the right answer.
But this is why I write. I write to think. I write to motivate myself and interact with the hidden parts of myself and explore my own mind. The right answer has been there all along. In fact, I’ve already given you the right answer. Maybe not in the exact words, but I’ve given it to you. It only took me reading back over this about eight times to see it clear as day.
A risk has parts; many of them, to be exact. Possibly dozens. Let’s use my foundation analogy again. Say you’re building a house at the beach in the sand. The house is your risk. The foundation is how you supported and prepared for that risk. It makes so much sense now.
Your house – your “risk” – is flawless in every way. You have the big picture risk in your mind and it probably doesn’t change at all, whether you think about it for days or years. It’s the same risk. “I want to climb Everest one day.” “I’m going back to get that doctorate one day.” “I’m going to finally ask that girl to go out with me.” They’re all risks, and they all sound exactly the same no matter the time that has lapsed between the first time you thought about it and the last.
So your house is solid. Your foundation is not. But the better your foundation, the better your chances of walking away from your house if a hurricane (failure) damages it or destroys everything around it. Why? Because you can be proud as hell at the effort you put into your house. You can walk away saying you did everything in your power to build a strong house. You did everything in your power to make your risk a success.
All of those “things” you did to support your risk are sunk into the bedrock of the foundation below your house. Those things like effort and research and hard work and pride and perseverance and overcoming obstacles and integrity and fairness and creativity and treating people right along the way are the stilts that lift that house out of the initial floods of attempted ruination and stand so strong in the bedrock that even the first winds have no shot at destroying your risk. And the more stilts you have, the better the foundation. Likewise, if effort and creativity and friendliness and research and doing your homework and all the others were half-assed in order to jump headfirst into a risk, how in the world can you be upset if you fail? You didn’t even try.
That’s like saying, “One day I’m going to open a coffee shop” and you’re upset when you fail within six months because you didn’t interview a single coffee shop owner. You shouldn’t be upset, you should be embarrassed.
For most hurricanes, if you do all of that prerequisite work, your house will stand. You took a risk and you did it. Your house and your risk is a success for the simple reason that you prepared for your risk. But eventually – inevitably – your house will not stand, no matter how much effort and how many stilts you buried in that bedrock. Sometimes failure just happens, and if you have done the work, you have nothing of which to be ashamed. In fact, you should be damn proud. You took a risk, you made it strong as stone with the effort you put into it, and then nature or God or some otherworldly force decided that risk was not for you. But you busted your ass to make it happen, and for that, you should be proud.
I have some risks that have been boiling inside me for years. Literally years. One of these days I’m going to read back over this and say, “Denton, by God, you get ONE damn life. Start building your damn house NOW.”
And When You Answer All Three?
Somewhere in the two months it took me to write this essay, I started the foundation of a house. It’s a big one, too. Now the challenge is finishing it. And trust me, it’s a gigantic challenge for me. Dreaming is easy. Answering these questions is easier than I remember them being. It’s the following through that is sometimes impossible. At least I know that after writing this, no matter if I fail or succeed, I know my foundation has to be rock solid in order to be proud of the possible failure. And that might take a while. As Garth once said, “This learning to live again is killing me.”
But I keep seeing the house I want to build. And it’s gorgeous in so many ways. Build the damn house, Denton.