To Be or Not to Be a Risk Taker

how do we resolve the need for safety with the excitement of taking risks?

Some of my favorite movies over the years have been films like Top Gun, The Fifth Element, Stranger Than Fiction etc. In all of these films the main characters take extraordinary risks with their lives, even when given safer alternatives within a risk filled profession itself. Tom Cruise is a reckless, though innovative fighter pilot, Bruce Willis is a futuristic flying-cab driver that takes on a fare he’d be much better off leaving by the curb, and Will Farrell is a mild-mannered IRS agent who voluntarily and needlessly agrees to die when he finds out he’s been written into a novel as the tragic hero.

 I’ve always admired fictional characters like this in film and literature and fantasized about being them. But when I think about it seriously, I’d never actually want to be in their place if the events in their stories occurred in the real world. Why is that? Human beings, when faced with reality, choose the safest path possible no matter how dull and lifeless it may be, if it brings us wealth and a prolonged existence. Yet in our imaginations, we fantasize about really being alive, not fearing death at all, and becoming heroes or heroines in the process. That’s where roller coasters, drag racing and sky diving and extreme sports all sprouted up from after all, a desire to experience life on the edge.

 Yet denying our personal dreams and still maintaining them in the corners of our mind when we drift off to sleep or get engrossed in a good novel and see ourselves as the protagonist seems to represent a tremendous disconnect between our imagined lives and the lives we choose to live each day. It makes the idea of “living your dreams” really rather suspect. How many of your dreams and fantasies would you really want to live if it meant abandoning the safe, predictable scratching out of an existence that you have now?

 This sort of psychological division in the human mind must serve some useful purpose. Has it been responsible for the progress of humanity over the centuries? How much better would things be today, possibly, if everyone lived their dreams and fantasies out as fully as they possibly could? We’d probably have more wars led by armchair Hitlers in various military units that were frustrated by stalemate situations with enemies. We’d have more divorce and social strife…but maybe we’d also have colonized Mars and the Moon by now and found a cure for cancer and global poverty.

 I remember that a Marilyn vos Savant column addressed this broader issue. She is a woman who used to answer questions from readers for the weekly Parade newspaper supplement, and she has the highest rated IQ in the US… Some young person wrote in and asked if they should pursue their dreams, when they posed some rather significant likelihood of failure due to being of a creative or artistic nature. Her answer was rather counterintuitive. She said that people generally should not consider pursuing their dreams unless they are willing to face a lifetime of struggle and hardship in the process that might very likely lead to ultimate failure. Her take was that its often much better for most people in society to choose a safe alternative, a boring yet predictable job, lifestyle and run of the mill partner.

 That’s all very logical and good advice, but it kind of kills the excitement of being alive. When you wake up each morning, do you dream of being a fighter pilot but “know” it can never happen, so instead trudge off to your job at the paperclip factory as expected by everyone around you? Or do you keep deceiving yourself by buying the latest Xbox fighter jet simulator game, and watching your worn out old VHS copy of Top Gun over dinner on the couch for the 92nd time?

 Either way it seems like we should give up on our impractical and hopeless dreams completely if we have no intention of pursuing them. Isn’t it a form of mental illness to maintain such unobtainable goals otherwise? What other purpose is there in having dreams if we don’t intend to take even baby steps towards accomplishing them at some point in our lives?

When you truly know that "someday" will never come and the time will never "be right" to pursue a risk taking fantasy, when the obstacles never go away, is that time to seek psychological counseling to rid yourself of such aspirations?