IN PRAISE OF RISK, UNCERTAINTY, AND STRESS

The shrinks and gurus are unanimous, and the medical establishment is nearly so - stress is bad for you, uncertainties should be reduced as much as possible, and risk-taking should be minimized. In this blog post, I am going to present the opposite view.

First, though, to make it harder for myself, let's list some of the debilitating sources of worry and uncertainty. What are the risks that most of us dread?

Let's start with the end. Death - or at least untimely death, before we are ready to go.

After death, failing health, perhaps. The onset of a fatal disease, or perhaps just the steady march of age, the increased frequency and intensity of aches and pains, and the ebbing of strength and flexibility.

Not far behind concerns about health are those about wealth. Not having enough money for our old age. Or even if we have enough money, maybe having to cut back on luxuries we've come to take for granted. A great deal of stress about money can sometimes be observed amongst the affluent, and even amongst the genuinely wealthy. Almost no investments are safe these days, and money lost is painful even when one has more than enough.

Then layer on all the uncertainties of our careers. If we are young, which occupation should we choose? Will we find a job we like? When I was about sixteen, I wondered if anyone at all would employ me, except for menial jobs, such as garbage collector (I actually was one in my holidays, and quite enjoyed it).

And when we have a job, is it the right one? Is it secure? Are we stuck in a rut? Are we working too long hours? How do we break out and find a job we like, or one that could make us lots of money? How do we trade off these goals? Are we worrying too much about how our career is going - or too little?

We are painting your portrait in oils, and now we slap on the paint of relationships. Do you have the right friends? This is important because you will become more like them. Have you met Mr or Ms Right yet? And when you do, what is it really going to be like to live with them all the time? Is it going to be like so many relationships you can observe from your friends, perhaps your parents, or from the news and gossip sheets, where the reality falls so far short of the ideal? And if it does, what do you do? Have an affair, and worry about being found out and taken to the cleaners in a divorce? Persevere in a failing tie-up? End it and face disruption to the lives of people you love, the public admission of failure, and the shadow of loneliness?

In all these issues, and many more complex conundrums of modern life, uncertainty and stress lurk around every corner, and you can understand why for some people it all becomes too much.

Hence the advice of the shrinks, doctors, financial advisers, and counsellors - avoid risk, uncertainty, and stress whenever possible.

A Thought Experiment

Now for a different perspective. Imagine a halcyon world where there is no stress, no uncertainty, and no risk. None at all. What would it be like?

No fear of death, because you would live for ever, or for as long as you wanted.

No fear of failing health, because a magic pill would always reverse illness.

No fear of running out of money, because it would always be abundant.

The guarantee not just of a secure job, but of a fulfilling one that you thoroughly enjoy.

The ability to find the right relationship at the first try, or, if the computer made one of its very rare errors, to rectify that without any financial or emotional loss.

Which single word would encapsulate such a world?

Yes, you've got it, you're ahead of me - the word is boring.

Imagine, for example, that you are a gambler, and that every horse you backed always won. This would be very nice for a time, but after a while you'd stop going to the races. Placing the bets would become a chore. Uncertainty is what makes life interesting. Without reverses or the prospect of failure, success becomes meaningless.

But a world without stress, risk, or uncertainty would be far worse than boring.

The apparently halcyon world would actually be soul-destroying, and a denial of our humanity.

In a totally benign and predictable world, character, flair, personality, intellect, judgment, and the ability to care would become totally redundant. We would become contented cows, fit only for munching our Grade A grass. We would cease to be individuals, cease to be different, and cease to be of an interest at all, to ourselves, to other people, or to the universe. No novels would ever be written or read, and no movies would ever be made or seen.

Life without uncertainty sounds alluring, but it would rapidly lead to a sense that nothing ever changed, nothing could ever change.

There would be no challenge, no call to cultivate and test our character, no pressing reason to expand and deepen our skills, no reason to advance our career, and no zest in evolving and intensifying our friendships. There would be no joy in finding the soul-mate of our lives and making that relationship one of endless love through our own actions and care.

There is also the material side of life to consider. Though this gets a bad rap, respect for property and the satisfaction from earning money honestly at a level beyond that which was expected of you, and beyond the level of your parents, gives purpose and meaning to hundreds of millions of lives. Making an economic success of yourself removes the canker of dependence on other people or society, enhances self-respect, enables you to help those around you, and provides evidence that you are doing things that are valuable to other people. It is impossible to strive for career success without uncertainty and stress, and it is impossible to achieve high success without extending yourself and taking risks.

So this is the wonderful trinity that makes our lives eventful and society dynamic - uncertainty, stress, and taking risks.

Without uncertainty, there can be no faith.

Without stress, there can be no hope.

And without taking risks, there can be no true love.

Love is an action, or series of actions, with uncertain outcomes. Love is a mystery because it confronts and includes two or more autonomous creatures with free will and uncertain responses. Love without taking risks - the risk of sharing your innermost thoughts, fears and hopes, the risk of being misunderstood or thought too ambitious, and the risk of rejection - love without risk would be a puny project, without the wherewithal to stir and excite, or to reach union between independent and unpredictable spirits.

Conclusion

In any interesting and worthwhile world or life, uncertainty, stress, and risk-taking - these three abide - but the greatest of these is taking risks.

Yet this is not the end of the story. In my next blog post I will explore why and how - with the 80/20 principle to guide us - we should be extremely SELECTIVE in the stress we take on, in the uncertainties we seek to resolve, and in the risks we run.