When is a risk worth taking?

Last week a nurse wrote about the top regrets that dying patients have about their life. Here they are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

From PostSecret this week

Many of these are about taking risks or taking action. Risks to go against the expectations of others or the prevailing thinking of society, and an action which is a conscious choice – yes – even the choice to be happier.

Some risks are simply about taking control and making a step towards a new reality or a potential goal, yet it can still be daunting to take that step. For example, someone might have been dreaming of following a certain career, but has to retrain in order for that to happen. It is very easy to put off that phone-call – what if they reject you? What if it is too expensive? Because these things are unknown they involve moving from a place of safety to one of uncertainty. Even though the potential rewards might be greater, it can seem like a daunting course of action. Usually, in hindsight the regret is “Why didn’t I do that sooner?”

Some risks are about quality of life. For example the regret above “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings” is simply about speaking the truth to others. Again the potential drawbacks, such as a rejection, can have a big effect. But people usually don’t regret saying what they feel. (If it’s bad news, however, people can regret how you say it!)

Others risks are simply for a thrill or a bit of fun. For example, I’ve been wanting to learn to snowboard ever since I saw the Snowboard-Cross event in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Yes, that’s a long time ago. Yet I never quite got around to it. I nearly did one Christmas in New England, but alas, that year, the snow came late and we had to go home before it came. Well I’m finally getting round to it at the indoor snow-dome near us. Nothing to lose but the possibility of a few bruises.

So when is a risk worth taking? In no particular order, this is what came to mind.

1. Does it fit into your life plan or help you towards where you want to go? If it doesn’t, the risk probably isn’t worth taking (unless it’s only a small side track). It may simply be a waste of time and energy. In this case, best to go back to basics and rethink what you really want and work towards that. (This can apply to relationships as well as job/career risks. Why waste time with a guy or girl who doesn’t treat you right or who doesn’t want to commit if you do? Might be best to cut your losses and hold out for someone whom you can plan a future with.)

If you don’t have a life plan it is worth finding out whom God has made you to by examining your passions, gifts and hopes. Finding a direction is usually a combination of these things.

2. Is it sensible? What do my trusted friends and family say? Sometimes the biggest sticking point in making a decision is wondering whether that decision is the right one. Talking about it to others and praying about it can help you work towards a solution. Some actions are obviously sensible but just require the discipline of a lifestyle change to get them sorted.

3. What are the potential consequences if the risk doesn’t pay off? Can I live with them if it doesn’t work?

For me, bungee jumping is a risk to far. The potential gain (a quick thrill) is not worth the potential risk (serious injury, death) if it doesn’t work. But if the risk is something more practical, like applying for a job in another part of the country, then assuming you want the job and don’t mind moving, it is probably worth the cost of a stamp to apply.

4. What is the likelihood of the risk failing? If the odds are too long and the cost is too high it might be worth holding back. If the likelihood of failure is high but the consequences of failure are minimal, it is probably worth the punt. Where there is a tricky middle ground, we need to go back to question 2.

5. Is is legal? Generally, what is illegal is not worth risking. There may be exceptions under regimes where human rights are not respected or religious freedom permitted

6. What are the consequences for others? Will they be hurt or impacted by the risk? There might be hardships for your family if you go ahead with something new. This will need to be taken into account. A few years on a lower salary might be worth it for long-term rewards, or if it means that you have more time to spend with them. Likewise, if a decision is going to take you away from them for large periods of time, however attractive or lucrative it might seem, it may not be worth it as their non-material quality of life may suffer from your absence. The impact of others needs to be carefully weighed up.

The Bible is full of examples of people who have taken great risks in order to serve God. In each case, they became aware of a call from God to do something particular. I would say that they discovered who God made them to be. It didn’t usually lead to a physically or materially better life – often they suffered hardship, imprisonment, they were chased out-of-town or persecuted because they went against the expectations of others. Yet in each case, they found their God-given selves and with that a peace and security to make the decisions they have to make.  I’m sure they would do it again.

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