Since leaving Charlottesville in May, I’ve done big things. I watched an entire professional basketball game from start to finish, developed an inexplicable allergy to the Bay Area, went skinny dipping during beach week and, perhaps most notably, moved to Los Angeles and began my summer internship at an international insurance brokerage, risk management and consulting firm. I spend the balmy L.A. days waking up at six a.m., analyzing stock charts and 10-Ks, attending client visits and learning the ins-and-outs of insurance and risk management. And I love every moment of it.
While visiting one of our insurance carriers, the other employees, interns and I played a game in which we had to purchase coverages in preparation for a potential natural disaster. Someone then threw a dart to determine if a fire, tsunami, hurricane, etc. would occur. We gained or lost points depending on if we had the right coverages in place. Over the course of the game, my team spent a good deal of time discussing the best methods for and importance of diversifying and mitigating risk. The consensus was that risk is inherently “bad,” and something to avoid at all costs. Like salmonella, or the boy that rode a motorcycle to high school.
But is risk really something that we should always avoid?
Risk is often impossible to prepare for in the first place, anyways. Much of it comes without warning — courtesy of fate — and astounds us with the ways in which it can introduce minor tragedies into our lives.
It was a drizzly day last semester when I was walking across Grounds with my friend, Madeline. I was done with classes for the day, the weekend loomed close on the horizon and I had nailed my most recent exam. Life seemed risk-free — until a disastrous combination of shoes without enough tread and a muddy spot of sidewalk got the best of me. In a horrifically egregious turn of fate, I was forced to walk down the Corner at rush hour, past my peers drinking pitchers of Bold Rock, while harboring a shameful and rather large mud stain on the back of my leggings.
It seems the only risks you can prepare for are the ones you take voluntarily. But I’d still disagree with the concept of avoiding all ostensible risk, because — and please brace for impact because I’m about to hit you with a massive cliché — with great risk comes great reward.
This internship seemed like a relatively sizable risk when I was grappling with my offer in November. I didn’t know anyone my age in the city, so L.A. presented a gamble between an educational summer of fun and a dismal nine-week period of intense social isolation. Luckily for me, things worked out.
And life tends to do that, when you’re willing to accept risk. The sheer intimidation of moving across the country for college left me so overwhelmed that I broke down crying in a Chili’s, but it’s left me with a college experience that’s been better than I could’ve dreamed.
Yet despite the payoffs that risk-taking can earn us, we tend to face it with disgruntled trepidation rather than embracing it with open arms. Now, bear with me as I go full-nerd English major on you for a moment here. In her poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver examines the minutiae of life, seems to question God and takes a scintillating look at a grasshopper. But then the poem zooms out and concludes with the question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
What strikes me about this poem is how acutely criminal it seems to confine a “wild and precious life” to a static state. In two, tiny lines we learn how the natural state of the world is one filled with chances that deserve to be taken, and that life is meant to be an unrestrained, dynamic thing in which you seek purpose and wonder in all directions. To live without any liability, on one secure and straight path, would be a disservice to your own potential.
And while I’ll admit that taking chances does open up the potential for failure, I’d take failure before inaction any day. Because while mistakes can often be viscerally painful to come to terms with, the lessons we learn from them seem to leave us discernibly better, more whole people as a result. What’s worse to me is the thought, “I should have.” I should have taken that hard class. I should have tried out for that team even though I knew I’d likely never make it. I should have told him that I liked him. I should have … taken a risk.
So, when it comes to business, I say, fine, mitigate risk to your heart’s content. Implement loss control practices, buy insurance, hire a broker — the whole gambit. But when it comes to life, I’d argue that you should pitch yourself into the oblivion of risk with unfettered hope and blind optimism. Because everything works out in the end, and if you’re willing to take a risk, life can be pretty incredible.