"And he found out that if he wanted to fly, he first had to jump." - The Little Paris Bookshop, 141.
"If you don't take any risks, life will pass you by." - The Little Paris Bookshop, 188.
A few days ago, I told the story of being stuck in a Costco store for an hour after the intended day's shopping was done. I just had to wait. And rather than let either frustration or boredom have a run at me, I decided to take positive action and explore the books and the wines in the shop. As a result, I made some wonderful discoveries - the big, engaging supernaturalist novel by David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, and a wonderful new book by Nina George called The Little Paris Bookshop, which is set mostly on a river barge that's been turned into a bookstore, and is really a story about risk and love. And, oh, yeah, there was also an amazing 2010 Bordeaux red for $16.95 - a vintage where you'll often pay hundreds of dollars a bottle. But $16.95? I took the risk. And it was really nice.
When I chose to leave a tenured full professorship at Notre Dame to launch out on a mission as a public philosopher, people said two things to me that gave me pause, and actually kept me up for a couple of nights: "Do you realize all that you're giving up?" And: "How do you know you can sustain this new adventure?" They were asking me to consider the clear sacrifices I was making, and the lack of guarantees I had about my new venture. That was 20 years ago, this month.
Those are two questions that can always be asked about anything new. And they should be pondered. What are you giving up by doing this? What are you getting by doing this?
Whenever you leave one thing, or form of life, or comfortable way of engaging the world, and take up something new, there is, presumably, both risk and reward. You should indeed reflect on both.
There's a general truth in life: No risk, no reward. It's of course the cousin of "No pain, no gain." Every time we commit to anything new, anything that involves a new path forward, we risk our hearts, our status in the eyes of others, sometimes our finances, and of course, always, possible failure. Whenever there's a fork in the road that's unmarked, and we choose to choose and keep moving, we risk picking the wrong path, one that won't be right for us, in the deepest ways. But risk is inescapable in life. Given that truth, we want to take the best and most reasonable risks we can, given who we are and what we most properly value - however crazy they might seem to onlookers. What does your heart tell you? What does your head say, as well? And can you get them to agree? If you don't take any risks, life will certainly pass you by.
Reasonable risk contemplates the ration of risk and reward, as well as whether worst-case-scenario possibilities would still allow you options to move forward in a different way. Some risks have possible downsides that would clearly end your adventures on earth. In fact, many do. Some are worth that risk. Others aren't. Some risks could potentially wreck havoc, while still allowing you another chance in the game. And in each such case, you should make sure you're fully committed to the potential rewards before launching out in the face of such risk. But since, in the most general sense, some form of risk is really unavoidable, we should indeed be prepared to embrace the risks that seem right for us, the ones that can potentially grow us and our positive impact on the world, starting with those fellow citizens of the world who are closest to us.
Life is a dynamic flow that at best involves protecting some things and letting go of others, as we move and change and grow. Risk is about release, but it's also about reaching out for something new and great.
The New York Times and many other news outlets recently ran glowing obituaries on a remarkable man, Nicholas Winston, who, as a young 29 year old clerk at the London Stock Exchange, visited Czechoslovakia, saw a need, and did some amazing things to save the lives of 669 Jewish children from the growing Nazi threat, and despite the tremendous risks he took, lived to the ripe old age of 106, from which vantage point he could see the 6,000 descendants, and counting, of those he saved. When he was asked to reflect on his choices, he said, "Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all." His risks had consequences for good that will go on forever. Yours can, too.
We should all be willing to take the risk, however big or small, that can have great consequences for good. We should consider what we're releasing, and what we're reaching for, and when conviction propels us onward, we can listen to the concerns of others without letting those worries stop us from taking the risk that seems right.