I was around 21 years old, training in martial arts at a rapid clip. Dedicated and progressing quickly. I was two ranks below black belt. The test for the next rank was coming up. My instructor encouraged, almost demanded, that I take the test two months earlier than I was scheduled. I didn’t feel ready. I tried to demur, but he wouldn’t hear it. I crammed in as much training as I could. The day of the test came. I was unsure of myself, didn’t feel confident, but I gave it my all.
I first heard the phrase “there is no growth without risk” over a decade ago. I’m not sure exactly where. It struck a strong chord with me. It’s used in context not of actual, physical growth, but personal and professional growth. Growing in the sense of developing new skills. Growing by being exposed to new experiences and ideas. Growing as a person.
Upon hearing it, it’s one of those concepts I, and I think many others, take as fundamentally true at face value. I’ve tried a few times to find the origins of the phrase but have never found the original source. But regardless of who originally said the phrase, it has obviously resonated with people all around the world. It comes up often in books on leadership, self-improvement, and business.
I was considering a new venture the other day and was unsure of whether or not I should take the initial steps to start down that path, and “there is no growth without risk” percolated up out of my mind. Yet instead of pushing me towards starting the new venture, I found myself thinking instead about the idea of “there is no growth without risk.” Why does it seem so true? Is it true? What does it really mean to “take risks” in order to encourage growth? Is it random? Or something that can be systematized for repeatable performance gains?
The more I thought about “risk” and “growth,” I realized I had only vague notions of what those mean, largely based on my personal, empirical experience. As noted in the last post on GIGO I didn’t possess a “tree trunk” of knowledge on the topic. If I wanted to get to “the why” of “there is no growth without risk,” then I needed to understand what those words really mean.
So the word “grow” means “to flourish, increase, develop, get bigger,” originally in the context of plants. Which makes sense as most flora tend to grow at much faster rates than fauna. Right now as I write this, my lawn needs to be cut almost every week. Lots of sun and lots of rain leads to tall grass. There needed to be a word that describes the rate at which plants change as it happens so rapidly. As opposed to humans and other animals which initially rapidly develop, then level off.
But something else caught my eye looking into the the origins of “growth.” As the above reference from Etymology Online notes, “grow” supplanted “wax” sometime in the 1300s. Language changes, words evolve. But the idea that the word “wax” used to be applied to people is interesting.
Most people are familiar with some variation of “as the moon waxes and wanes.” That is, the moon changes in appearance given it’s relative position to the Earth and the shadow that is cast across it. Given that lunar phases aren’t immediate and take time to change (every 28 days, or one lunar month), when I hear the word “wax” used in reference to growth, I tend to think in much longer time spans than I do when I hear the word “growth.” I’m not the only one. If you research the phrase “to wax and wane” used as an idiom, you’ll find that is usually in reference to events or processes that have longer time frames. “Enrollments wax and wane from year-to-year.” “Religion’s effect on people wax and wane over time.”
The idea that the term “wax” was used in reference to people seems a bit more apt to me. That is, the concept of slower, long term growth. Once you get through your early twenties, most of your physical growth is done with (and various parts of your body actually begin to deteriorate in your 20s). Personal/professional growth is different. It tends to not come quickly, but “waxes and wanes” over time. Personal/professional development does not develop quickly, it does not “grow.” Rather, it waxes – a slow change over time. We are also not constantly growing. Other things demand our attention. Work, family, health, taxes.
Which means there will be times where we wane. No longer growing, perhaps even regressing in our development. We tend to go through cycles of growth and stagnation or regression. For many people, this waxing and waning happens seemingly at random. They bounce about in their lives, reacting to other people and forces. If growth occurs for them, it is often at the impetus of others.
But instead of reacting to a gong for dinner, you instead wish to “hear a whistle from the Spartan fife,” then you need to something to serve as an impetus for growth. You need a plan of action.
If you want to grow, if you want “to flourish, increase, develop, get bigger,” as a person, not at random, but on a regular, recurring basis, then what do you need to do?
I like that, but let’s look at something more concrete before we roll with it.
Risk is potential of losing something of value. Values (such as physical health, social status, emotional well being or financial wealth) can be gained or lost when taking risk resulting from a given action, activity and/or inaction, foreseen or unforeseen. Risk can also be defined as the intentional interaction with uncertainty. Uncertainty is a potential, unpredictable, unmeasurable and uncontrollable outcome, risk is a consequence of action taken in spite of uncertainty (emphasis added). – Wikipedia
Uncertainty is the key word when it comes to risk. Risk requires uncertainty. That is, you don’t know what’s going to happen when you perform an action (or do not).
So combined with “un” (“not”), uncertainty is when something is not reliable, not settled, not confident. And risk is when you proceed with an action despite it’s uncertainty. Hence, “run into danger.”
So why is “running into danger” important for growth?
Slave To The Routine
Often people say they are “stuck in a rut” (a rut is a track worn by a wheel or by habitual passage, being stuck means you’re wagon or vehicle gets caught and cannot move move). Or when asked how things are going, “same shit, different day” (it’s a new day but you are going to repeat the same activities as the day prior). It’s shorthand for being in a routine in which there is very little variety. There is nothing new occuring day-to-day. If you’re not exposed to uncertainty, how you spend your day is reliable, settled, and fixed. You’re not having to react to new situations. You’re not having to improvise to handle a novel problem. You’re not having to adapt to adversity.
This means that you’re not having to add new skills to your life. You’re not adding new experiences, people, or ideas. It’s unlikely that you are creating anything novel or bringing anything new into the world. You’re staying within confines that you (or someone else) have set for yourself. You aren’t developing or getting bigger. You aren’t growing.
When things are set, when you have a routine that doesn’t expose you to new challenges and concepts, then growth is minimal. You become set in your ways. You don’t want to adjust and adapt because our brains are lazy. We’re wired for pattern recognition. Our brains put together schemata, rely on stereotypes, and attempt to go on autopilot as often as possible (you’re at the checkout lane at the grocery; “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” “Fine.”). We resist change as change means having to move outside of our routine.
Which is all fine and good if you’re saving your brain for something important. President Obama said that he attempts to pare down as many decisions as possible (not choosing his meals, wearing the same suits), in order for him to be able to expend his focus and mental energy on important matters. If you’re reading this, it’s unlikely that you’re running a country. You likely have excess mental energy that you could be using to grow, but don’t use it because your routine doesn’t require it of you.
Growth Or Stagnation
Which brings us back to “there is no growth without risk.” If you have a desire to improve yourself, you have to be willing to face uncertainty. There really isn’t any other way to grow personally/professionally or to develop new skills and gain new experiences. But the reason that many people shy away from this is because if you are going to face uncertainty, then there is the possibility that, no matter what the activity, you will come face-to-face with failure.
Back to the moment mentioned at the beginning of this post when I failed my exam, I was extremely put out with myself. I was angry. Angry with myself for not being prepared, angry with my instructor for pushing me when I wasn’t ready. I had been blowing through the ranks quickly, training constantly. I had face no setbacks or stumbling blocks on my path towards getting a black belt, and suddenly I was a failure.
When faced with adversity, I had two options: quit, or push myself to acquire the skills necessary to overcome the obstacles in my path.
So I doubled down in my training, set myself to the task, and crushed the test when it came around next time.
The same is true with any endeavour I’ve faced that has led to significant growth in my life. Passing the Bar to become a lawyer, running a marathon, starting this blog, writing a book, getting married, having a child. All have entailed large amounts of uncertainty. Each time I’ve had to adapt to new situations. Learn new skills and be exposed to new people and ideas. Sometimes the experiences have been painful, sometimes they have been joyful. But positive or negative, happy or sad, each uncertainty I’ve faced has made me a larger person. As Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Somewhere in your life there is a fire. It might be at work, or at the gym, or at home. If might be with your spouse, or your parents, or your child. It might be that project you never finished, traveling to a new city, or the business you want to start. It can even be as simple as joining a gym, watching less television, or eating healthier. Whatever it is, uncertainty lies at the heart of it.
To pursue uncertainty is to force the self to grow. Choosing to seek out uncertainty could lead to success and praise, or to failure and scorn. Regardless, by facing uncertainty head on, you will be compelled to adapt and improvise. You will change. You will gain new experience, develop new skills, or meet new people. The uncertainty might be good or bad – but at least it will be different. You won’t be a “timid soul who neither knows victory nor defeat.” You will have pushed yourself to do something new. You will have grown as a person.
So next time you encounter uncertainty and are faced with the choice, choose to run towards the fire.