#16 — Tips for Taking Risks as an Active Citizen

There are smart ways and not-so-smart ways to take risks. Smart is better.

Lower the Risks by Getting Better Information about Them

You may find out that some perceived risks aren’t risks at all, or are less significant than you first thought. People were afraid of eclipses when they thought eclipses were caused by an angry god. The risks disappeared when people learned that eclipses were predictable effects of the orbits of the moon, sun, and earth. You can improve your knowledge of the risks you see by questioning people more familiar with the situation than you are, and by doing research in books, newspapers, and magazines, and on the Internet.

What’s Your Experience? Have you ever been in a situation in which the risks you first perceived disappeared in the light of new information---for example, someone you thought was an opponent wasn’t?

On the other hand, if you increase your knowledge and find that the risks are real, the things you’ve learned can help you prepare to take those risks.

Many people tend to exaggerate the real risks they face, either because they haven’t had much practice at taking risks or because they’ve got too many memories of risks that failed. It’s also easy to load a real risk with lots of other emotional baggage that’s just not relevant to the here and now. If you were cowed by your first-grade teacher or your drill sergeant 30 years ago, that experience could be adding to whatever uneasiness you may feel in speaking your mind to your boss, or to the mayor or the leader of the opposition.

Try This: Take the time to reflect on the nature of your fear. How much of it is fear of the specific risk in front of you and how much is baggage? Reflection may not eliminate the queasiness you feel, but naming the fear accurately will help you move forward.

Lower the Risks by Increasing Your Competence to Take Them

Situations tend to be scarier the less competent we feel to handle them---often because we lack skills, plans, or support. Putting on a fund-raising event is more frightening if you have no idea how to do it. Overturning a county ordinance is more daunting if your team lacks a plan. Taking on city hall is scarier if you’re all alone. You can use what’s in this book to build your skills, make a plan, and enlist support.

Gaining experience is another important source of competence. You’ll feel a lot more confident testifying before the planning commission if it’s the fifth time rather than the first. You may want to begin with small challenges with small risks, until you’ve built a track record.

Don’t hold back now because you feel you’re not perfectly competent or because you feel some butterflies. Take the first steps. Then up the ante, each time going one step past your present level of comfort.

The Secret to Being Brave

Getting better information and increasing your competence are pretty obvious ways to lower risks. I suggest them here because people so often rush into action unprepared. Slow down. Get better information and increase your competence by learning a skill, making a plan, getting support, and gaining more experience.

But information and competence can take you only so far. They can never reduce your perceived risks to zero. To face the risks that remain will take courage.

Key Point: Courage is not about being unafraid. Courage is doing the right thing even when you are afraid.

Where does courage come from? What makes one brave?

Key Point: You can increase your courage to face risks by focusing on the meaning that the risky action has for you.

Coach’s Corner #1 discussed the importance of finding and leading a meaningful life, and of service as the path to meaning. Now I’m saying that there’s an important link between meaning and courage. How does that work?

Think about it: when something you’re doing is personally meaningful---a relationship, a job, a cause---you feel deeply that you’re on the right path, you’re committed to walking it, and you feel good about that.

If you have to do something that scares you in order to keep on that path, don’t focus just on the risks. Look at them within the whole picture, as parts of this path you know is meaningful. When you see risks in this broader context, they don’t go away, but they do seem more worth taking, and you become more willing, confident, and competent to face them. In other words, the commitment you already have for walking that meaningful path spills over onto the risks you face along the way, and you draw on the power of that meaning to help you act despite your fear. Here’s a hypothetical example:

Let’s say you’ve agreed to mentor a kid who is reading way below his grade level. But you quickly see that reading is the least of it. He’s angry and he’s starved for affection and respect, at school and at home. You see that you’re not just helping with his homework---he’s depending on you for much more. You feel like you’re on a high wire without a net, with far more responsibility than you want. But if you chicken out, you could make things even worse for him.

You’ll find the courage to deal with these risks by remembering what it means to you to be a mentor, helping shape a child’s life for the better. Now you can see the risks in the context of doing something that’s meaningful to you, so your inner talk should be: “I’m a mentor to someone who needs one badly, and doing this is really important to me. The risks that are scaring me now are a part of being that mentor---so here I go.”

Many of the Giraffe Heroess whose stories are told on the website of the Giraffe Heroes Project are good examples of people who have become braver because they found meaning in the challenges that called them to be brave.

Key Point: Committing to your ideals can put you in situations that scare you. But if you focus on the meaning that the action has for you, you’ll take those risks, and you’ll take them well.

Keep On Keeping On

Of course, you can take risks and fail. You can be caring and responsible, your life and actions can all be meaningful, your plan can be terrific---and you can still fail.

It happens. You pick yourself up off the floor. You figure out how to do what you’re doing better. And you start again.

Key Point: It’s not falling off the horse that’s the problem---it’s the lying there.

There may be times when you look out at problems you might help solve and you just don’t give a damn; your life at that point is not exactly brimming with compassion, courage, and meaning. And there may be times in the middle of a project when a string of setbacks has gotten you down and you want to quit. Keep reminding yourself at these difficult times of who you are in your best moments, and who you can be anytime you pull yourself together.

Finally, I understand how easy it is to be cynical about politics and government. I understand how easy it is to see other people behaving badly and to fill your life with blame instead of positive action. I understand how easy it is to see people making fortunes at others’ expense and think that, yeah, you are entitled to your share, too---that society or life or “somebody” owes you comfort and ease.

Don’t go there! That’s the path of the Living Dead. Instead, remind yourself of how important it is for you to make a difference. Remind yourself that change happens only when people---not superheroes but ordinary people---see problems and do something about them, despite the risks.

If some idea or ideal for change is burning in you, the time comes in your life when you can’t just talk about it anymore. You’ve got to stick your neck out and go for it. That’s courage.

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