Since the beginning, human life on Earth has been an assiduous battle with the unknown and a series of unprecedented risk-taking. Exposure to danger seems to be the price to pay for progress. This is the first lesson learned in childhood, when the need to move from dependence to independence pushes us beyond the limits of safety and personal comfort. It familiarises us with the risks.

Childhood possesses a biological and psychological force that motivates us to face obstacles not just in any way, but with a smile on our faces, while we explore the world and experience revelations that shape us.

When we are little, play is the main tool for understanding reality, a tool that dispels—through the joy of discovery—any fears caused by the unknown.

Even in our teenage years we are curious about new things, prone to seemingly risky decisions and behaviours. In reality, it is a calculated risk, not an impulsive one, as it might seem at first glance.

In adulthood, things begin to change. The potential risk of certain actions (personal, professional, or otherwise) can alarm us, raise unanswered questions, and paralyse many promising initiatives. A 2018 survey conducted in Great Britain shows that 6 out of 10 people are afraid to take risks because of the consequences they could face.

The fear that holds us back

Fear has beneficial effects in certain situations (by triggering the instinct of self-preservation) but becomes harmful when it encourages passivity, dependence on predictability, and the lack of a plan. However, many forget that the biggest risk is not to take any risks, to take cover under pessimistic scenarios about the future.

Avoiding risks acts as a shield against disappointments of any kind. It clothes us in a tempting state of comfort and cultivates our taste for living out of a kind of inertia.

But what do we do when something comes along that offers a sense of personal unfulfillment? Studies show that, unlike the “cautious” ones, people who choose risk over safety are happier.

Calculated vs inadvertent courage

The brain likes to be in control. It is proven that it prefers to handle negative situations that have a high degree of predictability, rather than working with ambiguities.

The alert response felt by the limbic system in the face of uncertainty makes us anxious and resistant to change. However, courage is not acting in the absence of fear, but in spite of it—stepping into the arena despite the fear caused by uncertainty and discomfort.

There are both good and bad ways to make decisions that involve major risks. Before a significant decision, we should evaluate the situation well, weighing the specific advantages and disadvantages, to ensure the viability of a plan B.

Stepping blindly into the unknown is not a solution. “Calculated” bravery is preferable, along with following these steps:

Don’t be afraid of failure—Failure creates opportunities and reveals the true meaning of success. There’s a saying that goes: “Take risks. If you succeed, you will be happy. If you fail, you’ll be wiser.”

Don’t be afraid of success—Success can seem overwhelming with its responsibilities and duties. Nevertheless, we all have the right to live our own success story, whether or not it conforms to the classic pattern.

Don’t be discouraged by others—A single word is enough to plant doubt in one’s soul. You should not abandon your plans because of the trust you invest in superficial opinions.

Calculate the risks well—If you do your homework and do not minimise the “dangers” related to future decisions, the chances that success will be on your side increase.

The leap into the unknown

When it comes to risk-taking, the human experience is a vast realm of contrasts. On the one hand, we like to “play it safe”, having a clear and well-defined trajectory. On the other hand, we are endowed with a mind capable of adapting to new situations, a sign that we can positively assimilate change.

How can we do this? A first step in the foray into the unknown would be to accept that:

  1. There is no progress and no change in the absence of risk.
  2. It is not fate but our choices that define our existence, therefore we can choose what kind of changes to initiate in our lives.
  3. We cannot control the people around us or certain circumstances, but we can control how we relate to them.
  4. We are allowed to make mistakes or feel overwhelmed by change; perfection only exists in movies and books.
  5. Unpredictability is part of life and must be treated as such.

Regardless of the adventurous spirit—or, on the contrary, the exaggerated caution—that might characterise us, let’s not forget that the ball is invariably in our court.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in social work counselling.