July 13, 2010

It's All In Your Head

It’s all in your head... That is, the way we each see the world around us is determined by how we engage with it. This message was driven home to me in an unexpected way. A few years ago I took a creative writing class in which the professor asked us to describe the same scene twice, the first time from the perspective of someone who has just fallen in love, the second from the point of view of someone who has just lost a child at war. You were not allowed to mention falling in love nor the child. This simple assignment revealed how completely different the world looks depending on your emotional state. When I imagined walking through a crowded city in a state of bliss, my mind was focused on the colors and sounds and my view was expansive. When strolling through a similar scene in a depressed state, everything looked gray and all the imperfections, such as cracks in the sidewalk, jumped into focus. I couldn’t see beyond my own feet, and the city seemed daunting, as opposed to stimulating. This is what I wrote for that assignment a dozen years ago:

Sara leaned over to admire the bouquet of peach-colored roses she had just bought. Her mind wandered fancifully from the flowers to the wonderful smell of fresh bread coming from the bakery next door. Standing to the side of the entrance was an amateur juggler. With his wildly colored costume, he attracted an audience of children who giggled each time he made a mistake. She watched a few minutes, and found herself giggling too. He finished his performance with a foppish bow towards Sara. She took a deep bow in return, and handed him a rose.


Joe walked with his head down, protecting himself from the icy fog, as wind-whipped newspapers sailed through the air, slapping against the buildings before taking off again. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.” These words kept running through Joe’s mind as he passed each crack that disrupted the rhythmic pattern of the sidewalk. The childhood taunt became a low drone in the back of his brain as he focused on the uneven path that stretched in front of him.

This was a valuable assignment not just for practicing my writing skills, but also for life in general - a poignant reminder that we choose how we view the world around us. The environment is filled with flaws and flowers, and we each decide which to embrace.

This blog post is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, published by HarperCollins in April 2009.

What's Your Risk Profile?

Trying new things requires a willingness to take risks. However, risk taking not binary. You probably feel comfortable taking some types of risks and find other types quite uncomfortable. In fact, you might not even see the risks that are comfortable for you to take, discounting their riskiness, but are likely to amplify the risk of things that make you more anxious. For example, you might love flying down a ski slope at lightning speed or jumping out of airplanes, and don’t view these activities as risky. If so, you’re blind to the fact that you’re taking on significant physical risk. Others, like me, who are not physical risk takers, would rather sip hot chocolate in the ski lodge or buckle themselves tightly into their airplane seats than strap on a pair of ski boots or a parachute. Alternatively, you might feel perfectly comfortable with social risks, such as giving a speech to a large crowd. This doesn’t seem risky at all to me. But others, who might be perfectly happy jumping out of a plane, would never think to give a toast at a party.

On reflection, there appear to be five primary types of risks: physical, social, emotional, financial, and intellectual. For example, I know that I’m comfortable taking social risks but not physical risks. In short, I will readily start a conversation with a stranger, but please don’t ask me to bungee jump off a bridge. I will also happily take intellectual risks that stretch my analytical abilities, but I’m not a big financial risk taker. On a trip to Las Vegas I would bring only a small amount of cash, to make sure I didn’t lose too much.

I often ask people to map their own risk profile. With only a little bit of reflection, each person knows which types of risks he or she is willing to take. They realize pretty quickly that risk taking isn’t uniform. It’s interesting to note that most entrepreneurs don’t see themselves as big risk takers. After analyzing the landscape, building a great team, and putting together a detailed plan, they feel as though they have squeezed as much risk out of the venture as they can. In fact, they spend most of their efforts working to reduce the risks for their business.