I’ve spent the past year taking some of the biggest risks of my life. It started when I quit my corporate job in New York City, put all of my belongings in storage, and left home with nothing more than a one-way ticket abroad and a carry-on. My goal was to pursue a social experiment in which I would circumnavigate the globe by trusting dozens of strangers who were somehow connected to me through my social network to host me along the way. Since completing that journey, I’ve taken many more risks in my quest to design a dream life from scratch, including living on a tight budget to continue traveling full-time, starting my own online brand consulting business and carving out time to write a book.
Just over a year ago, leaving behind my stable, comfortable job in corporate to pursue a dream to travel the world and be location-independent in my work was a terrifying thought. I can’t express how many times I considered backing out an idea that I believed could have changed my life – but had no idea whether it would succeed – in exchange for the security of having a steady paycheck and advancement up the corporate ladder.
The truth is, we have no way of guaranteeing whether the risks we take will work – that’s why they’re risks. But, as Steve Jobs wisely said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma whatever.”
My experience so far has shown me the truth in this philosophy. While taking risks can be unfamiliar, uncomfortable and sometimes scary, when we have a clear vision of the type of life we aspire to, the outcome (whether it was what we expected or not) is generally worth it.
A mentor once told me that there are reckless risks, and then there are “enlightened” risks. Enlightened risks are thoughtful, calculated, and inspired by a larger vision or dream – they are actions that we take in the hopes of getting closer to where we want to be. Not all of the risks I’ve taken have paid off directly, but all of them have taught me valuable lessons about how to do better the next time around:
Courage begins with a small step. Courage is essential when it comes to risk-taking. I’ve come to think of courage as a muscle – you have to consistently work on it and continue building it over time in order for it to strengthen. There are so many things that I’ve done in both my personal and professional lives since leaving home that I previously did not believe I’d have the courage to do: quitting without any backup job lined up, traveling through certain third-world countries solo, sleeping in the homes of dozens of strangers, hiking active volcanoes in the middle of the night, and jumping out of airplanes for fun are just some examples that come to mind.
Taking a plunge into the unknown without having any idea or guarantee that it’ll work out for us can be intimidating and even terrifying. If there is anything I’ve learned from traveling the world as a solo female, however, is that most of the time, our fear is in our heads. We fear what we don’t know, and too often, we allow that to prevent us from taking actions that could progress us in our goals.
My newfound lifestyle has required me to consistently put myself in situations that are risky and out of my comfort zone, and I live a fuller, more satisfying life because of it. I’ve learned to trust my intuition while also using logic and rationality to guide me. Most times, it's paid off. There have also been times when I invested in an opportunity, trusted somebody or hoped for an outcome that didn’t work out. This, too, has helped build character. Taking risks is not just about gambling on a favorable opportunity and hoping you win – it’s also about taking responsibility and having the courage to get back up when you lose.
Opportunities can always be created. I used to allow my life decisions to be dictated by what I didn’t have. My excuses would range from: “I don’t have enough money,” to “I don’t know the right people,” to “I wouldn’t know how to begin.” I learned the hard way that people who take risks and succeed don’t think like that. When we take risks, we have to be prepared for outcomes. To drive those outcomes in our favor, we have to be willing to create opportunities for ourselves.
Every excuse has a solution. For example, there is always money to be made. It may not be the way we envisioned it, but it is possible. I traveled the world on a very tight budget, and if I ever got stuck, I would pick up odd jobs such as writing and consulting gigs along the way. If we don’t know the right people, we can jump on Linkedin or any social media platform and try to reach out to them. We can ask around, network, and go to events that the type of people we want to meet attend. If we don’t know how to begin something, we can Google it. We can ask someone who is familiar with whatever project we want to delve into, do online research, or take courses.
Taking risks has shown me that if we want things to work out to our benefit, we need to be active participants in creating opportunities for ourselves. There is always a way. But if we do nothing… then nothing can be created.
The “hustle” breeds creativity. Every time we are faced with the obstacles that inevitably accompany taking risks, we are forced to either retreat from them or think critically about how to solve them. By doing the latter, we can push ourselves to innovate in ways that we may not have otherwise.
While traveling, I've continuously witnessed people's uncanny abilities to innovate using little more than their creativity. This is especially true in developing countries, where resources are scarce and people have little choice but to make do with what they have. I remember meeting a young man in Cuba who, besides having no formal training, taught himself to fix his car because taking it to the mechanic was too expensive (in a country where the average monthly salary is $20, this is understandable). I was awed to learn that he replaced an entire car door and window by himself. Likewise, I was blown away by the Nepali villagers who couldn't afford to purchase furniture, so instead constructed it themselves by using recycled materials. There was also the Greek woman who chipped in with some friends to buy a sailboat in the 70’s, and taught herself how to sail at sea so she could travel the world affordably.
These innovations were all born out of risks: a risk to take apart a car without knowing if it could be put back together, to self-build furniture rather than purchasing it from experts, to sail around the world despite having no idea how to operate the machinery. The inspiring people that I’ve met throughout my travels have proved to me that there is always a solution to a problem – if you hit a roadblock, then that just means you need to keep looking.
On my end, I’ve experienced the constant hustle of looking for a host whenever I arrived at a new place, finding affordable food and activities, and dealing with the constant changes of culture and environment. The daily hustle and risk-taking has helped me develop the ability to think quickly on my feet, search for alternative solutions, and be unafraid to ask for help when I needed it.
Overall, I believe that filling our lives with doses of big and small enlightened risks helps us grow by shaking us into action and stimulating results. We cannot allow ourselves to become paralyzed by what we can’t do or the bad that could happen if we take a leap into the unknown. In the end, we get to decide what will result from the risks we’ve taken. The more we risk, the more we may find we have to gain… even when we "lose."