A YouTube video showing all sorts of reckless, risky behaviour. While I had a sportbike, I never took it this far — but by conventional standards, I still took some serious risks.
Paula Ryan, president of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) has written a powerful article where she describes how she had (justifiable) fears — and overcame them. I’ll let you read the whole story yourself. Her conclusion — meaningful in the context of the story: “With the right equipment, relationships, and attitude anything is possible!”
Her observations brought back my memory of when I realized I had defied fear, not so much because of any brilliancy or (as Paula enjoyed), the right equipment and relationships, but perhaps because of my attitude — in this case, not knowing better. I was 26 years old, and very drunk in a very strange place — a bar in a remote village in what had been Rhodesia. The community had been a centre of the insurgency that led to Zimbabwe independence, and a few years later, would be a place of horror and genocidal massacres of about 20,000 civilians, with the help of the North Korean army. But for a few weeks, as the independence celebrations neared, it was safe from violence.
Local white people said I shouldn’t risk going to the community. But the blacks said it was okay. And so I enjoyed the celebratory Good Friday bus ride, which led to my self-discovery (and losing my job — it isn’t okay to get drunk and represent your employee relationship without authorization in a war transition zone.)
In the weeks immediately following this discovery and before my return home, I took risks beyond anything in my life, perhaps fuelled by a temporary mania — a sense that I was invincible. Luckily, there was no permanent harm, even at my final stop in Africa, in Liberia, a week after a military coup, when I ended up in a commandeered taxi with a drunken (and well-armed) Liberian soldier.
There have been a few other times when I went over the line in risk taking — like riding a sportbike at 160 km for 40 minutes on a 90 km road (and for this ride, in motorcycle parlance, I dressed like a ‘squid’ — that is, without proper protective clothing.)
Clearly some fear is a good thing, and lack of fear can lead to reckless risk and danger. The challenge, then is to find the balance. And here I think we can add one more testing tool for risk-taking — perception and knowledge.
Thankfully, for example, through most of my time in Africa, I indeed took proper precautions. I checked locally for risks and modified my activities. (I had for example planned to visit Uganda during the era of Idi Amin with a travelling friend. But after listening to advice at the Canadian High Commission, I backed out. My friend went in, and was picked up by Amin’s goons — and thrown into prison. Thankfully he was released but his story made the international news at the time.)
Similarly, I decided to make my career-changing decision to live and work in Rhodesia through the transition to Zimbabwe only after having visited for a month a couple of years earlier, and with knowledge about the rules and systems that existed; plus plenty of reading about the country’s circumstances and history. It wasn’t a blind, wild, experience most of the time.
In the real world, fear serves a useful purpose — if we blindly ignore the warning signs, we trend to the reckless and dangerous extremes. Yet our success can be measured by our ability to overcome fears; and even better, to engage in activities which others think are risky, but which we know are reasonably safe. So, yes, I spent a 18 months as a journalist in a country at war far from my home, but with a few crazy exceptions, I didn’t push the risk button too hard. However, the perception of my courage — and my realization that I had indeed pulled it off — opened doors and set the stage for success in the rest of my life.
In overcoming fear, then, think about equipment, relationships, attitude . . . and knowledge. If you can solve the fear problem, you probably can solve any problem. And that means, at times, realizing that it is right to be afraid.