Taking Risks Requires Practice

And patience. This is intended for people who recognize that a need to change themselves, their environment, or whatever and are having trouble getting started.

Until last month, all of the books in my Kindle collection were exclusively technical.

Whenever I travel for work and spend two hours uncomfortably seated between obese strangers and screaming children, I fire up the iPad and delve into a world of exciting subjects like Spatial Data Analysis in SQL Server 2008, the Ruby programming language, ASP.NET MVC3, iOS development, NoSQL Databases, and so on. Behold the “traveling with Aaron Stannard experience” in its full glory.

Before a business trip to Boulder I loaded up The Flinch in my Kindle collection because it was (1) free and (2) I had read someone somewhere say that this was a life-changing book. Whatever. I set about my business, had a good day of work in Boulder, and on the return trip home I fired up the iPad and started reading.

The Flinch delivered on its second-hand promise of being life-changing… The basic premise of the book is this: all people are born with a very small number of built-in reflexes. Loud noises make us tremble, high pitched cries make us look for children and people who are in distress, and “the flinch” is there to protect us when are in immediate danger.

The flinch isn’t just the physical cover-up-with-your-hands reflex you had when Tommy Tommerson tried to drill you in the crotch with a kickball line-drive in 3rd grade – it’s also an inertial force that stops you from taking potential risks and making changes. Do I really need to explain what’s wrong with feeling resistant to taking risks and making changes? Fine.

As I hinted in my last post about our first post-collegiate years and as Paul Graham spelled out explicitly in his  “Top of my Todo List” essay – our biggest life regrets are errors of omission. Drifting apart from great friends, finding out years later that the hot girl from English class thought you were cute but you were too much of a pussy to make an advance, not taking the job at the early stage startup that made it huge, not staying close to a family member who passed away suddenly, and the list goes on.

The reason you let this stuff happen is because of the flinch – the flinch speaks to you in your own voice, rationalizing reasons why you shouldn’t pick up the phone and have an awkward conversation with your sick relative or why dating is a waste of time. It makes you feel comfortable sticking with the status quo and tells you “you’re fine, you don’t need to change.”

In the ancient days, when changing your routine might mean getting eaten alive by a Sabre-Toothed Tiger because you decided to go hunting in an unfamiliar part of the woods, the flinch was a good self-preservation instinct.

Today, what’s the biggest danger you can possibly run into? Being the one out-of-shape fat person struggling with the Stairmaster at 24 Hour Fitness? Dear God, anything but that!

The flinch gets in your way more often than it helps. It stops you from making the sorts of changes you need to realize your goals. It drives unwarranted compromise and needless caution.

So how do you overcome it? Like anything else worth doing, you practice.

More abstractly: overcoming your aversion to risk takes practice and effort – the very real physical and psychological reflex that your body and mind impose on you when presented with a risky choice must be unlearned by way of repetitive exercise.

I’m great at taking risks with some things and not so with others. I’m not as averse to risk in some areas because I’ve developed a competency for risk-taking through repetitive effort; in areas where I suck at taking risks it’s because I’ve spent years rationalizing away my need to practice and improve.

After I returned home from Boulder I set about making some long overdue changes. I started exercising again. I reconnected with some old friends. I started teaching myself things I’ve needed to learn for years but had told myself “no Aaron, you suck at X.” Fear of taking even minor risks, like the self-awareness you feel the first time you work out in twelve months, is an everyday thing that can (and must) be overcome.

The most impactful thing I’ve tried is a recommendation taken directly from the text of The Flinch itself – I’ve started taking cold showers. It’s initially uncomfortable and you’ll feel the flinch kick in as soon as you turn the dial on the shower, but it’s a start to programmatically overcome the fear. I thought it sounded stupid (if you find yourself saying this a lot, you might just be afraid of whatever it is you’re describing) but I tried it anyway and have stuck with it.

It’s a struggle to push aside something as deeply programmed as the flinch, because it’s our natural default. But we do it because the things we want require us to sack up and overcome it.

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I'm the CTO and co-founder of Petabridge, where I'm making distributed programming for .NET developers easy by working on Akka.NET and Helios.

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