Can You Lead a Meaningful Life Without Taking Any Risks?

When I was a kid, one of the things I loved to do was layer my socks — bright pink over turquoise, rolling them to make a rainbow, my Keds laced loosely to accommodate the added bulk. I’m fairly certain no one ever told me this looked cool. Like most things I did at that age, I wore the socks because I liked them, because it felt good to smile, because I enjoyed my curious consciousness, the weird brain I was growing, the magic of this new world.

I don’t remember when I stopped wearing awesome sock rainbows, but I did — probably because someone sneered at them or because I realized everyone else had white ankle socks and I should probably have them, too. I grew into a person who routinely made my mom drive me to school because I missed the bus trying to figure out what to wear and then had her DRIVE ME HOME AGAIN because I got there and realized I looked too idiotic to live.

I was fearless when I was young; all kids are. We are born with a primal urge to test ourselves, wave our limbs around to see what they can do, peer over the ledge to the great wide beyond. Imagine where humans would have stalled out were we not naturally inclined to risk; if not for that first idiot baby who decided to stand up on two legs, we’d be scaly-bellied slug people still slithering safely along the ground.

As we grow up, we lose the feral nerve that once came so easily. “Taking a risk” becomes code for “humiliation,” for “stupidity,” for “that time you flailed your way through a routine set to ‘Smooth’ by Santana during your dance team audition.”

It is easy, in other words, to feel that a life lived on the right side of that line is safer than constantly stepping over it. But what happens if you stop courting risk? Can you live a meaningful life without ever taking any risks?

A life without risk is a strange thing to contemplate, in part because the risk-taker is such a culturally romantic figure. “Live each day as if it were your last!” the magnets scream, leaving those of us who aren’t sold on the idea of meth-fueled skydiving feeling small and shameful in our desire to remain firmly on the ground, maybe in a corner, enjoying a nice book. I think of myself as someone guided by routine and predictability, my risks confined to trying a new sheet mask. But I’m writing this in a new apartment in a new part of the world where I moved months earlier with a new person, a partner for whom I gave up a job, a city, a life I’d built for myself. Was that a risk? Sure, although it didn’t feel that way at the time. At the time, it felt inevitable — I didn’t question whether I would go because I didn’t question that my life, in this moment, is meant to be twinned with his.

And that is the beauty of risk: It is self-determinative. We get to decide what it is that brings us to the edge. One person’s “I’m quitting my job to travel the world!” is another person’s “Almond milk instead of soy, kind sir!” You are the only one who gets to determine what feels bold, what action will prompt that widening of spirit. And truthfully, simply getting out of bed each morning means allowing for disaster; it means releasing some of the stranglehold of control we attempt to exert over our lives.

One of my favorite thinkers, Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, talks about the “exquisite risk” of living (a phrase borrowed from poet Mark Nepo):

Every time we open up out of our familiar cocoon to contact a wider reality, to really touch aliveness more fully, we are taking the exquisite risk. … We are willing to let go of an old experience that gave us some measure of comfort, security or certainty and exchange it for what is unfamiliar and way more alive.

The “exquisite risk,” she says, is daring to live from a place of true openness, a place where we aren’t shielded by our pre-existing ideas of who we are and what is acceptable. Operating from that place — a place of “unconditional presence” — is a risk, yes, but also the only way to discover both what we are capable of and what we truly want. Risk is the path by which we become more fundamentally ourselves.

It’s this duality that makes risk so compelling and so necessary. Taking risks allows us not only to grow but to more deeply understand what we won’t sacrifice or what makes us feel unsafe. Risk can be a coiling in on ourselves as much as it is a reaching out, as we get to know ourselves more deeply through brushing up against our terror and rapture.

As for what constitutes “a meaningful life,” I think it’s a life in which we are fully participatory. It is a life in which we are most present, in which we explore and create and love as our most honest selves. The only way we get to know that self is by pressing up against our walls, learning what feels good, what opens us up and what makes us unique.

Perhaps that means saying yes when we want to say no, or vice versa; maybe it means courting humiliation not by doing what scares us, but by doing what excites us; maybe it’s the daunting work of figuring out what those things are by spending more time with ourselves and our thoughts. After all, turning inward can be risky — it makes it much more difficult to hide.

Collage by Emily Zirimis.

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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