With today’s widespread access to education, economic prosperity and robust social safety nets, risk adversity is paradoxically at an all-time high when our chances of failing in life are actually at an all-time low.

While risk affects people in very different ways and at different phases of life, high risk adversity may be ascribed to an entire generation of men and women typically in their mid-twenties to late thirties today. Such millennials have completed their professional formation and are budding in their careers. Most have prosperous horizons, yet have unrealized human potential and unfulfilled dreams. Many prefer a certain level of comfort, simplicity, and status quo: single lifestyles, apartment renting, intermittent travel, and job security. Yet, they generally have deep misgivings about much larger, riskier “leaps in life” and, thus, postpone marriage, home ownership, childrearing, and starting entrepreneurial ventures.

Why is this so? To understand what we mean by risk and why some are more prone to temerity than others, it is helpful to discover the root meanings and other applications of this common word.

Risk Is the Stuff of Legends

Our English word “risk” originated in the Greek maritime slang rhizikon, meaning “a hard land, rock, or stone.” For ancient seafarers, like Homer’s Odysseus, a rhizikon was spoken literally in reference to sharp crags and rocky shores, but also metaphorically for anything that threatened to sink their vessel, such as whirlpools and sea serpents. The Romans borrowed from the same Greek word and spoke of resicum, “an object that cuts or slashes, a sharp rock.”

It also meant “cliff” from which one might leap in a do-or-die dilemma. In this way, we understand the expression “being caught between a rock and a hard place” and why we speak of perilous situations as “cliff-hangers.” Furthermore, in modern French, risqué means to go against the grain of acceptable etiquette and modesty while in German risiko refers to any hazard against which we wager or invest in order to reap rewards and benefits: financial, moral, physical.

Risk is Rooted in Opportunity

What is clear, in understanding the ancient roots and some modern extensions, is that the word “risk” cannot be associated only with a particular danger, threat, or loss. Risk also is seen as an opportunity or investment. Risk is about chances, indeed, but to grow and succeed. Standing up against the status quo, being disruptive, and passing through treacherous terrains through which no one else dares makes us use our best creativity, practice extraordinary perseverance and, above all, excel at prudence, while making reasonable bets about costs, benefits, and our overall probabilities of success.

Yet, as felt by the bravest ancient explorers, risk is never 100% calculating. There is always some percentage of our motive based on the mere thrill of confronting danger head on. Perhaps we find risk exhilarating because we are anxious to find out if the fear is actually what we make it out to be (as when leaders say F.E.A.R. is “false evidence appearing real”).

Another non-calculating motive is related to human instinctual sense of duty. We leap into a burning house to save a baby, despite the poor odds, because we are hard-wired to save the lives of fellow human beings, especially the most vulnerable. We just do it. No questions asked. Finally, we might risk merely out of faith and prayer. We believe God has our back and we go for it.

Honing Your Character

By accepting a risk, we choose to embrace a “problem” (from pro “forward, toward” and blein “to be thrown, launched; to leap or lunge”). We force ourselves to “be thrown forward”, that is, “progress” in wisdom and experience. Risking to overcome adversity makes us better, stronger, and more faithful. We shine like star athletes and saints as we are moved to accomplish the most difficult and heroic feats. As the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle famously said: “Adversity is the diamond dust with which Heaven polishes its jewels.”

What risk adversity boils down to is how we psychologically frame dangers — how we contextualize and find purpose or deeper meaning in major threats and hazards. Do life’s big, sharp rocks necessarily shipwreck us? Or do they serve to sharpen our wit and character for smoother sailing in even riskier situations?

In negative framing, risks always give us that “sinking feeling”, causing us to delay action – to get cold feet – or immediately reverse our course in order stay afloat. We become protective.

This is why we remain dating but never lunge toward a marriage proposal. This is why we keep the 9-5 administrative position rather than risk launching our own start-up. This is why we keep our money locked up in safe deposits rather than throw our hard-earned cash toward a mortgage.

While safe sailing keeps many dangers at bay, the greatest treasures of home, family, children, and professional fulfillment remain equally distant and painfully unrealized.

The positive framing approach is to see risk as a way to make us leap over and beyond our own self-imposed limitations and against the pressure of our peers. When we take risks and forgo the comfortable, we unlock opportunities for that something more to which we yearn. Not only will we make actual progress towards our goals, we will transform into humans that have been shaped by a rugged landscape, finely cut and ready to take on the adventures of this world.

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