People don’t like risk. More than half of middle-income households in the United States don’t invest their savings in the stock market because they are fearful of losing their hard-earned money. Many people fear exploring unfamiliar places because they are afraid of getting stabbed or robbed. These concerns don’t fade with education; in fact, Yalies seem to be equally as risk averse, if not more. Few venture to shop a difficult class because of the “risk” of a B-. Few dare to ask their crush out because of the risk of rejection. Few even consider fields like entrepreneurship because of the risk of failure.
Risk is scary in all contexts — not just professional ones. Just recently, I was offered an opportunity to fly over New Haven in a small airplane, but I struggled to find anyone willing to join me. Even with the chance to pilot the aircraft included, many friends openly said they wouldn’t dare to try. In fact, people often avoid trying new experiences, even if they have had rewarding risks in the past. This is the kind of irrational risk that prevents people from growing.
Risk seems scarier than it really is. The imagined downside is salient, while the upside is unknown. You can easily visualize the presumed consequences of getting a C: your GPA plummets, your job prospects vaporize, your family fumes with anger. Getting a C doesn’t seem to lead anywhere — if anything, it “ruins your life.” But these images only represent what you expect based on previous experience; the most amazing things in life are the best hidden.
Because most people don’t like risk, those who do are being compensated for it. People who make a real difference in their fields aren’t those who follow the well-trodden path. In the world of finance, riskier stocks give you higher expected returns. The wealthiest people in the world are almost exclusively entrepreneurs because they took an immense risk. For every Bill Gates or Larry Ellison, there are thousands of entrepreneurs who fail, many of them having lost money. But does all of this mean you shouldn’t try? I mean, Jesus was one of the biggest risk takers of all times.
This country has been successful largely because people tend not to hold your failures and mistakes against you. Moreover, if you don’t do risky things in your early 20s, when would you do it? When you’re 40? The simple truth is that now is the best time to take risks. At the same time, you won’t make a meaningful difference through the low-commitment, riskless activities you pursue instead. You shouldn’t deceive yourself. Spending an hour a week on a student club won’t “change the world,” to echo the most overused phrase at Yale. Instead, find what you really believe in and take risks to get there.
This can be as simple as taking a class you don’t satisfy the prerequisites for. It can be reaching out to a professor whose research you admire, asking if you can help in any way. It can be asking out the guy or girl you’ve liked for weeks. It could be going to another country alone over break, instead of spending riskless time at home with people you know, doing things you’ve always done. It could be messaging me if you’re interested in flying a small airplane. The possibilities are infinite — you just have to know what you want. Don’t let fear prevent you from enjoying life, even if you feel pressured to follow the crowd. Life is too short for that.
Jakub Madej is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .