How to Take Risks

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When I was young, any time my family got a new VCR or stereo, I would press every button, plug and unplug every cord and cable, just to see what everything did. With time, I learned how it all worked. And because I knew how it all worked, I was often the only person in the house who would use the stuff.

Like many millennial children, my parents looked on as if I were some sort of prodigy. To them, the fact that I could program the VCR without looking at the instruction manual made me the Second Coming of Tesla. They would shake their heads and guffaw and say, “How do you use that thing?” and I’d just kind of shrug and not really understand the question. There are buttons. You press them and see what happens. Eventually, you learn to press the right ones.

It’s easy to look back at my parents’ generation and chuckle at their technophobia. But the further I get into adulthood, the more I realize that we all have areas of our lives where we’re like my parents with the new VCR: we sit and stare and shake our heads and say, “But how?” When really, it’s as simple as just doing it.

My parents' understanding of a VCR.
My parents’ understanding of a VCR.

I get emails from people asking questions like this all the time. And for many years, I never knew what to say to them.

There’s the girl whose parents are immigrants and saved for their whole lives to put her through med school. But now she’s in med school and she hates it and doesn’t want to spend her life as a doctor and wants to drop out more than anything. She feels stuck. So stuck that she ends up emailing a stranger on the internet and asking him a silly and obvious question like, “How do I drop out of med school?”

Or the college guy who has a crush on his tutor who is a grad student and he can’t possibly imagine crossing those invisible boundaries that lay between them. So he agonizes over every sign, every laugh, every smile, every diversion into small talk, and emails me a 28-page novella that concludes with the obvious and silly question, “How do I ask her out?”1

Or the single mother whose kids have dropped out of school and they’re loafing around on her couch, eating her food, spending her money, not respecting her space or her desire for privacy. She wants them to move on with their lives. She wants to move on with her life. Yet she’s scared to death of pushing her children away, scared to the point of asking, “How do I ask them to move out?”

These are VCR questions. From the outside, the answer is simple: just shut up and do it.

But from the inside, from the perspectives of each of these people, these questions feel impossibly complex and opaque — existential riddles wrapped in enigmas packed in a KFC bucket full of Rubik’s Cubes.

VCR questions are funny because they appear difficult to anyone who has them and they appear easy to anyone who does not.

The problem here is our emotions. Filling out the appropriate paperwork to drop out of med school is a straightforward and obvious action. Breaking your parents’ hearts is not. Asking a tutor out on a date is as simple as saying the words. But risking intense embarrassment and rejection feels far more complicated. Asking someone to move out of your house is a clear decision. But feeling as if you’re abandoning your own children is not.

I struggled with social anxiety throughout much of my adolescence and young adult life. I spent most of my days distracting myself with video games and most of my nights either drinking or smoking away my uneasiness. For many years, the thought of speaking to a stranger — especially if that stranger happened to be particularly attractive/interesting/popular/smart — felt impossible to me. I walked around in a daze for years asking dumb VCR questions to myself:

“How? How do you just walk up and talk to a person? How can somebody just do that?”

I had all sorts of screwed up beliefs about this, like you weren’t allowed to speak to someone unless you had some practical reason to, or that women would think I was a creepy rapist if I so much as said, “Hello.”

The problem was that my emotions defined my reality. Because it felt like people didn’t want to talk to me, I came to believe that people didn’t want to talk to me. And thus, my VCR question, “How do you talk to somebody?”

Because I failed to separate what I felt from what was, I was incapable of stepping outside of myself and seeing the world for what it was: a simple place where two people can walk up to each other at any time and speak.

Risk-Taking and Emotional Roadblocks

I’ve written at length before about how unreliable our own minds often are. We have so many perceptual biases and mental inefficiencies going on, it’s a wonder we can handle heavy machinery. And because of these perceptual inaccuracies, I’ve written about how we must be careful in judging others, and not accept beliefs without some degree of skepticism.

But our emotions are just as unreliable as our brains. Our heart is just as capable of misleading us as our head. Just because something feels bad does not mean that it is bad. Just because something feels scary does not mean that it is scary. Just because someone feels like a self-absorbed douchecanoe does not mean that they are a self-absorbed douchecanoe.

Too often, we allow ourselves to be dictated by our emotions. We become fused with them. We are them. It’s so ingrained in us, it’s part of our language. We say, “I am scared,” instead of “I feel scared.” We say, “You are mean,” instead of, “It feels like you are being mean.” We identify both ourselves, and each other, with our emotions, with no separation between us, and we therefore unconsciously come to see our emotions as both our identity and our destiny.

On the mission of “make your life suck less,” this is a DEFCON-1 level problem. Buying wholesale into our own emotions — without skepticism, without cross-examination — provokes an insidious narcissism within us. The person who is forever obsessed with their own feelings and satisfaction is a person who is unable to look outside themselves, a person who is unable to take on the perspectives and feelings of others as their own, a person who is unable to hold values beyond their own credit and gain.

When you allow your emotions to define how you see the world, you become self-absorbed.
When you allow your emotions to define how you see the world, you become self-absorbed.

Our culture reinforces this subtle form of selfishness, this constant identification with feelings and wanting to feel better. But feeling better is not necessarily being better. This fallacy is present in our advertisements, in our political speeches, in our films and literature, in our self-help industry.2 If you feel bad then it is bad. If you feel good then it is good. “Go with your intuition.” “Listen to your gut.” “Follow your heart.” “Live for today.”

These clichés pollute our mindspace and limit us to the simple and small projects of our overall being. They reduce us to merely what we feel, ignoring all that we are.

You may feel anger at your mother, but that anger does not define your relationship with her. You may feel anxious about making a change in your life, but that anxiety does not define your life. You may feel guilty about asserting your boundaries, but that guilt does not define who you are or who you choose to become.

You are not your emotions. You are something greater than your emotions. We must learn to unfuse ourselves from our emotions. We must learn the ability to stand independent of what we feel.

The day I learned to get up and go talk to that person across the room I wanted to talk to was the day that I learned to stop saying, “I can’t talk to anybody,” and instead said, “It feels as though I can’t talk to anybody.” This simple decision, to identify my emotion as separate from reality, allowed me to then reject that emotion, to say, “I feel as if no one wants to talk to me, but that feeling may very well be wrong. Let’s find out.”

Emotions are important, don’t get me wrong. You feel bad about dropping out of med school and breaking your parents’ hearts for a reason. It sucks.

But when choosing what to do with your life, emotions can’t be your only reasons. Feel your emotions but do not allow yourself to be defined by your emotions. Acknowledge the feeling and then act based on something more than the feeling.

Emotions are useful. But they are our biological suggestions, not commandments.

When I was in grade school, I had a teacher named Mrs. Weeks. Whenever you asked Mrs. Weeks if you could go to the bathroom, she would give you this funny look and say, “I don’t know, can you?” in a really patronizing way, as if you had suddenly lost your ability to walk, or woken up that day without any hands.

It was annoying. But there was an important lesson in her quirk that stuck with me. It was this: There is a difference between what we are capable of doing and what we allow ourselves to do. We often don’t recognize that difference.

My parents never allowed themselves to fuck with the VCR because they were too afraid they’d break something expensive or embarrass themselves. Meanwhile they never realized that they were perfectly capable of using the dumb thing the whole time.

For many years, I never allowed myself to freely speak to others because I felt as if I wasn’t good enough for them — a feeling I also allowed to define my reality and who I was.

Tomorrow, somewhere in the world, somebody will drop out of med school because they hate it, greatly disappointing their parents. Somebody else will tell her deadbeat kids to finally get off the couch and move out. Somebody else will risk it and ask out their sexy tutor. All of these people will know of the impending disappointment and judgment when they do it. Their bodies will freeze. Their minds will scream. Their hands will tremble. They will feel like their life is ending that day, and they will stand and watch as the sky shatters above them and falls.

But they will also know, somewhere within themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, that just because they feel it does not make it so. That our emotions and our agonies, like everything else in this world, will also pass and dissipate. That despite risking everything, they are risking nothing.

And because they know this, they will go through with it. They will break hearts. They will hear the screams. They will shatter the sky and stand gaping under the silent moon.

They will be a better person.


  1. By the way, please do not email me a 28-page novella about your dating life.
  2. The new age section of self-help is the worst about this. Pretty much anything that involves intuition, energetics, releasing and so on, is just a subtle form of emotional masturbation and will, with time, turn you into one of these free-spirited, benevolent narcissists who totally means well but is insufferable to be around for more than 12 seconds. Especially if you bring hydroponic pot and bongo drums with you.