Twenty three years ago, I quit my job, cashed in some stock, gave away most of worldly possessions, and bought a one-way ticket to Kathmandu, Nepal. I had some money in my pocket, no plan and about a year of runway. I bought one way tickets to Sydney, Kathmandu, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Auckland which meant I didn’t have the constraint of having to return, I could move forward instead of backward. There was fast learning and growth due to a solid year of travel, adventure, and financial and physical risk. I carried heavy loads up to high altitudes, did lots of physical training, and started diving into a spiritual journey. I learned a lot. I thought I knew what poverty was and didn’t have a clue. I thought I wanted to do epic treks to remote places (Annupurna basecamp above) but what I really wanted was human connection. I stopped looking for love and found it a year later when I met my friend, Kerri Eich, in New Zealand on New Year’s Eve. It was one of the highest risk moves I have made in my life and it paid back many-fold. Actually, probably not even possible to quantify the returns in expanding your perspective, finding the love of your life, and having the space to explore yourself. Buying one way tickets for a year reinforced in me the benefits of uncertainty.
After this trip, I settled down, got a job, and started making money again. I moved in with my good buddy, Mike, in Silicon Valley. We bought furniture and I was back in the material grind. It was great. I had my first real job in Silicon Valley, had $15 left when I got my first paycheck, and started a career that would pay off in multiple ways. I learned to be a decent coder, then manager, then got into cybersecurity.
I moved to LA, Kerri and I got engaged in New Zealand and married a year later. We bought our first house, and had Boden a couple years later. Life was good. Ayden came along four years later and my heart was full. Kerri and I both lost our fathers to cancer during these years, we lost good friends due to illness, suicide, and accidents and we figured out how to live with grief. Life was full of mini-adventures – roadtrips, camping, backpacking, travel, new jobs, watching the kids grow into kind and independent young men.
As we gained more resources and responsibilities, I found myself becoming protective of what we have and less willing to take risks. I look back now and realize I haven’t taken large risks since 1999. I have changed careers, companies, and houses but haven’t really felt that same level of exilhiration I felt 23 years ago, buying one way tickets without a plan to return. I wrote about leaving my tech job on a high note and since then, my heart has been full of gratitude from the amazing people that gave me opportunities to grow and develop. And, it has opened up a new conversation with old and new acquaintances about being well, taking care of yourself, and achieving more joy, meaning, and impact in our limited lifetimes. I am feeling the same level of fear and excitement that I did 23 years ago and it is making me more aware, engaged, and improving my performance.
Once I started thinking about all this, I was curious on the neuroscience behind risk taking. We are homeostatic beings; falling back into our natural states physiologically and mentally is what our central nervous system does. In order to move to a new level of performance you have to throw away the safety blanket and sit in the snow, growing new skills and resetting your homeostasis to a new level through active challenge followed by active recovery (Peake, 2019). One of the prerequisites is to change your mindset from fixed to growth for the domain you want to get better at (Briggs, 2020). Then, you need more reps at higher and higher challenges (not too much, 4% is about right). When this challenge/skills ratio is right, you quickly compound learning and performance gains and will surprise yourself with the results.
I should define what I mean by risk. There is financial risk and behavioral risk and we know much more about the former than the latter (Schonberg et al., 2011). Risk in financial terms is variance in possible monetary outcomes. Risk from a clinical perspective means behaviors that are risk such as drug use, mountain climbing, or driving dangerously. We all have risk levels that we are comfortable with and these are specific to the domain. For example, I have lowered my risk tolerance for mountain climbing and managed it to a level that I feel comfortable with. I don’t have the same desire for high mountains, technical climbing and crossing crevasses but I feel challenged and safe in high alpine backpacking situations.
As I learn a new domain, I am trying to stay in the flow zone, the right amount of challenge to alleviate boredom, and not too much to create anxiety, growing skills day by day.
Long story short, the more you have it seems the harder it is to take risk. Even having a couch can hold you back because of the comfort it provides. You have to get out of the comfort and take some risk in order to keep growing.
You do not know where your limit really is unless you test it. In fact, your central nervous system will try to stop you well before you hit your limit, and you may be surprised that your limit is actually far beyond what your mind actually tells you. For those of you thinking about taking risk, plan as much as you can, but don’t let the plan block you from taking action. A one way ticket is a good thing sometimes!
- Tom Schonberg, Craig R. Fox, Russell A. Poldrack. Mind the gap: bridging economic and naturalistic risk-taking with cognitive neuroscience. 2011. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 15, Issue 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.10.002.\
- Briggs, S. (2020, December 16). 25 ways to develop a growth mindset. Open Colleges
- Jonathan M Peake. Recovery after exercise: what is the current state of play?. Current Opinion in Physiology, Volume 10, 2019, Pages 17-26, ISSN 2468-8673. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cophys.2019.03.007. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2468867319300379
Howdy. You have a lot of spirit. Onward! Neil S.