Fear, as we’ve said, is the dragon of dragons, the block of blocks that stops people again and again from a better life–fear of being wrong, fear of looking foolish, fear of speaking up, fear of public speaking, fear of what tomorrow will bring, etc. But there are other major dragons preventing people from achieving their goals and purposes and reaching their long-held dreams. Among them is:
Being Afraid to Take Risks
One of the more powerful blocks to committed action in personal and work life is the desire for certainty, the sure thing. In short, the desire for the impossible.
My Uncle Fred
My uncle Fred set out to invent a new type of nozzle. He rented space in a factory where my father worked, and my father would watch Fred working long hours in hip boots in vats of water trying to perfect his nozzle. My father would come home from work and say, “Poor Fred, splashing around night and day with his nozzles. I feel sorry for the guy. It’ll never work out.”
Uncle Fred had a wife and three children, but no income. He was staking everything that one day he would invent that revolutionary nozzle and would make millions. He had the idea and the design, but needed a machinist to shape the nozzles he was working with, and so he offered a share of the business to my father, a machinist, if he would work with him at nights and on weekends without pay until the business was making money. Though we never had enough money, my father was never one to take risks and he turned down the offer.
Did Fred succeed? Yes, he did. The nozzle he invented was revolutionary, and he did make many millions from his patent and his manufacturing company, and he bought an estate in the country with stables and horses, and a BIG house with art works from around the world, and another big house for the servants. My father scratched around for nickels all his life.
Night School Students
I taught a graduate college class at night to students who worked during the day. I would guess they ranged in age from twenty-five to fifty-five. Every semester I would conduct a survey by asking the class, “If you could do it over, would you go into the career you are in now?” What do you think they said?
You’re right. The great majority said emphatically “NO” or more often, “NO WAY.” They “should have been” an animator. They “should have been” an engineer, or an attorney, or a novelist.
Then I asked them, “Then why don’t you go into something you would like more?”
Whatever they answered—“I make a lot of money now and might not make as much in another career”—“I would have to get another degree”—“I’m too old to start over”—were various ways of saying, “I’m afraid to take risks.”
Bill the Executive and Herman the Runner
When I first met Bill, he was second in command of an organization with a work force of approximately three thousand people. His boss told me that Bill actually ran things. I felt it would certainly help my consulting with the organization if I learned what decisions Bill was contemplating. But when I asked him he snapped, “Decisions! I’m not making any decisions. I made that mistake last year.” Here was a man three thousand employees looked to for direction and job security, and he didn’t intend to make any decisions!
I had run across another Bill years before. His name was Herman. I had one season of high school track under my belt when Herman tried out for the team and made it as a 400 meter runner. He was a decent runner who worked very hard. The day of his first meet came and since his event was coming up, the coach looked around for Herman, but he was nowhere in sight. Eventually, though, the coach found him hiding in a washroom, his legs shaking, his face pale with fright. I’ll never forget coach putting his arm around Herman’s shoulder and walking him to the track, then saying only one short sentence, very softly, very kindly: “Herman, it’s time to get your feet wet.”
Let’s not be too hard on Bill, Herman, my students, and my father. They’re just examples of what is in fact the most popular approach to living and working: trying to avoid taking risks. Don’t run and you can’t lose the race; don’t make decisions and you can’t make bad ones. Don’t gamble on nozzles; don’t change you career in mid-stream. But on the other hand, don’t help Uncle Fred and you’ll never be rich, and don’t change your career and you’ll never know how happy you might have been in that other career. Don’t run the race and you cannot feel the thrill of victory. Don’t make decisions and you can’t make glorious decisions that will change your life and possibly the lives of those you love.
It could be that right now you too are hanging back from a decision or from taking decisive action in your own work or personal life. You might be shying away from potentially rewarding, exciting, and incredibly gratifying experiences because you want to avoid the disappointment or pain that might occur if things don’t work out. Like Herman, the runner, you want to keep your feet bone-dry.
The Search for Guarantees Will Get You Exactly Nowhere
Searching for guarantees in life and work is looking at them from the wrong end of the telescope, looking at them ass-backwards. The purpose of work and everyday life is not to avoid risk, quiet as that’s kept, but to maximize opportunity. And where do the richest opportunities lie? Exactly where the dangers are greatest. The best chance for total victory are to be found where? Where your chances of losing are also great.
A survey was done of 300 adults who were asked to reflect on their lives, their happiness and their regrets. Who were the most dissatisfied with their lives? Those who regretted not taking more risks.
The one constant factor in life is uncertainty. Half the things we try to do are affected by it. Wherever there is risk there is danger and there is fear. But risk and danger and fear needn’t stop us. In samurai swordsmanship there is a daring move that requires you to take two leaping steps forward and to come within a hairsbreadth of your opponent’s sword. It is not a difficult move and can bring quick and total victory, but it is rarely used. Why, when you can win so easily? Because taking the risk of coming so close to the foes blade terrifies most swordsmen. In life as with that sword move, it is often only by edging yourself in close to defeat that you also approach great success. Uncle Fred knew that, but Bill didn’t. Herman didn’t, many of my students didn’t, and my father certainly didn’t.
We-jei, the Chinese character, is made up of two symbols. One is “danger;” the other is “opportunity.” Danger—the danger of taking risks– offers us the opportunity to expand, to grow, to show courage, to become stronger, to start fresh on a more fulfilling course,
When you find yourself shying away, tell yourself, “I’ve got to edge in. I’ve got to play it closer to the sword blade.”
Take a coin and flip it. Whatever you do, don’t call “danger” and once again refuse to take a necessary risk—and make no progress. Make another choice. Call “opportunity” and be on your way.
TELL ME WHAT YOU’RE THINKING
What risks have you been afraid to take? How did you succeed in overcoming your fear?
© 2014 David J. Rogers
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4 responses to “Overcoming Obstacles”
Very inspiring article. Thank you.
Great article and it is so true that we all seem to be afraid of failure these days. We want perfection and that is really hard to live up to. Failure offers opportunities and patience and that seems to be in short supply these days. Everyone wants instant success, gratification, etc. Thanks for the article – very thought provoking.
A good introduction to your blog,David.We need what was once called character and of course courage.
Hello Katherine. Good to hear from you again. I like your ideas very much–character and courage together. There seems to be a premium on those attributes in the last seventy years.
I hadn’t read this post on obstacles for a long time and I’m happy you brought it back to mind.
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