Taking Risks

There are days when I am just so interested in hiding. Days where all I want to do is blend in, sit, and be. Days when I think about how much more straight forward things would be if I wasn’t pushing against the walls. Walls have a tendency to push back and there are days when it would so much easier to sit in the middle of the room and laugh at the crazy people on the edges. There are days.

The problem is that I’m just not wired that way. I have this problem with taking risks, I like them. When I was younger it meant I needed to do insane things on my bike, on the soccer field, or on a basketball court … its different now, but only the context has changed. I’m no longer able (or willing) to put my body through that kind of torture, but I am still willing to let it all hang out. I like to challenge myself and those around me. I know I drive people crazy with it all, but it is what it is — and it always has been.

One Footed Back in the Day

Cole One Footed Back in the Day

I remember a half dozen years ago when I was at IST and I started the Blogs at Solutions Institute experiment. I asked everyone at SI to write in the open — to take the plunge, to risk throwing their voices into the wild, and to see what came back at them. I had recently read the Cluetrain Manifesto and was convinced that the web was going to be the platform that democratized education and I needed to see first hand what it all meant. I was interested in pushing at the walls until they caved on me and I can say they didn’t. But damn, it was scary.

I remember one of my colleagues at the time telling me it took him four hours to press the submit button on his first blog post because the World was going to read it. It had to be perfect.

On the web, as with riding a ramp, there are no do overs. Once it is in the wild the RSS is out there and the Internet is very unforgiving. I can go back in time and see what my early days on the web look like … long after I’ve pulled my thoughts down. It is a place where things seem to live a lot longer then we think they do. So I understand why it feels like a risk.

But you know what? Its the way things are. Time moves in only one direction. As much I’d love to be taking risks on that old orange GT freestyle bike, it just isn’t going to happen. Those days are over … the Internet is my skatepark and I plan to continue to push it and myself to the limit. I grow tired of arguments that push in the other direction and tell me that it is too hard to participate, that there isn’t time to be a part of it all, and that its going nowhere. All I can say is that there are really only two sides of history — the right and wrong. Where will I fall? I have no idea, but just like back in the day falling is part of the equation. You think learning how to do one footed 6 foot airs off the top of an eight foot quarter pipe comes without a cost? Think again. Sometimes we get humbled and other times we pull off something close to epic. Is epic worth the potential fall? For me? Every. Single. Time.

12 thoughts on “Taking Risks

  1. Cole, I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts this month.

    Your writing covers many of the topics and issues that have motivated me recently. I’m working on a number of projects right now, and I’ll address two of the points that you covered in this post:

    1) Not Being Afraid to Fail

    I met with Ellysa Cahoy a few weeks ago to discuss my upcoming graduate school application, and I told her that I’m no longer afraid to fail. I told her I’m not sure when this concept came into place for me, but I am fine with failing a dozen times if that means the next time I achieve my goal. Like you said, failing is part of the equation, and even though it may sound like a cliche, it’s also very true. Every day I deal with people who immediately follow up a story or decision with an excuse or reason why it didn’t work. It’s never their fault, you know? Not with me, I make plenty of mistakes, but I have confidence in my abilities, and I also realize (like you do), that nothing comes easy. In a recent blog that I wrote, I remarked to nobody in particular:

    “You think the most successful people are the ones who happened to get lucky and have everything go right the first time they tried something?”

    What’s important to keep in mind is that you learn from your failures, and follow up on new techniques in the future. During a presentation that I gave recently on the Knowledge Commons, I told the audience if something doesn’t work when you first try it, don’t get frustrated or give up. Instead, ask yourself why it didn’t work, and try a new way in the future.

    2) Don’t Think Everything That You Produce Has to Be Perfect

    You gave a perfect example of the gentleman being hesitant to post his blog entry, because it had to be perfect. What I try to make inexperienced technological users realize is that nothing anybody does is perfect, but rather what’s important is that you make yourself visible, hear feedback, and constantly work on improving your work. This concept applies whether or not we’re talking about blogs, podcasts, using Twitter, producing/directing multimedia projects, preparing for a presentation, etc.

    In a lot of ways, both of these ideas come back to confidence. If somebody is confident in their work, they won’t be afraid to get out there and make it happen, and that’s something that I’ve tried doing this past year.

    I look forward to reading your future posts, as well as meeting with you in a few weeks to discuss a lot of these concepts.

    John Patishnock

  2. @John Patishnock Thanks so much for the comment and the feedback. One of the things I’ve been trying this month with my posts is to dig a little deeper into who I am and what really drives me forward and crazy. I’m finding that I feel better about writing as I drift into more unfamiliar territory. It is easy for me to stick to education and learning technologies, but exposing more of what I am all about has been a challenge. I think that’s where this post came from.

    I can’t agree with more when you say …

    In a lot of ways, both of these ideas come back to confidence. If somebody is confident in their work, they won’t be afraid to get out there and make it happen, and that’s something that I’ve tried doing this past year.

    Just thinking that way is a risk and rolling the dice every now and then pushes your forward. I’m thrilled to hear you are willing to go for it and get your grad application going. Its important to push yourself and critical to know that failing/falling is part of a balanced equation.

  3. My name is April and I suffer from SAD (Submit Anxiety Disorder). I’m in a program now and I am clicking the button much more frequently. All kidding aside, when I read this post, I thought you might have read my blog post yesterday called “Blogging for the sake of it”. I’ve recently decided to give blogging another chance and try to be more brave. I was one of the people who never seemed to have the time or more accurately wasn’t willing to take the time.

    John made a good point about “good enough” too. This is the reason I post so infrequently. I write a post and then I edit and edit and edit. It never seems to worthy of publishing for the world to see, so I never publish. For me there is a lot of value in the writing/reflecting process even if I don’t click submit and publish it for others to read, but that’s a cop out. How can I be part of community if I don’t ever contribute to it.

    Some of us talked about blogging fears at the BS breakfast this morning too. It comes down to fear of failure and taking that risk that you described of maybe embarrassing yourself somehow. I decided to believe that the world will not cave in on me if I have typo or an opinion that’s not so popular, so I plan to be more brave and take more risks, well, at least with blogging.

  4. @ April Hi April, and welcome to SAD Anonymous! I think there is a real challenge associated with getting to “just good enough.” We all work so damn hard to not be imperfect when in fact we really are. Taking the risk and letting go of some of the control is tough, but it leads to real growth. The process of reflection is powerful and it is even more so when we let other people take part in it! Thanks for the comment!

  5. These comments are really making me wish that I had made it down to the BS Breakfast meeting this morning.

    April, your comments remind me of a friend of mine who is hesitant to write because he doesn’t think that he’s a good writer, but being a “good” writer isn’t what writing-or blogging, is all about.

    I can say without hesitation that writing is the biggest passion of my life. Always has been and always will be. Cole, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the notion that writing exposes who you are as a person. The great thing about writing is that you can’t fake it, and it shines a light on parts of your life that were previously in the dark. And unlike other people, I’m not afraid to see what my writing will say about me. On the contrary, I get a thrill out of writing about new topics, and I’ll include one quick example:

    I just had a great conversation with a Hispanic professor about “The Low Mango Theory”. This theory is centered around the tropical regions, where Mango trees grow. Some trees reach great heights, while others stay close to the ground. As it could be reasoned, it is easy to pick mangos off of the trees that are close to the earth, while it’s an arduous task to be able to reach the mangos off of the higher trees. Many times people have to employ multi-level thinking to reach those high mangos, and not everybody is willing to do that. The teacher concluded by saying that she has a number of students who are “only picking the low mangos”, and that she needs to find a way to change that. Maybe you’ve heard of this before, but I hadn’t. I loved the story, and I plan on applying it within my current position in life at Penn State.

    I wish I could write more, but I just don’t have the time right now, though I can’t wait to see where this new energy takes me in my writing.

    Cole and April, thank you so much for your thoughts on this topic.


  6. Cole, since I didn’t get to coach b-ball this year, I’m unleashing my John Woodenisms on the ETS this season. Wooden believed that “the team that makes the most mistakes will probably win”. Especially in a sports context, that sounds very counter to what we hear but the truth is that true doers make mistakes. But it’s exactly what you are saying here. Mistakes come from doing, but so does success.

    “The individual who is mistake free is also probably sitting around doing nothing. And that is a very big mistake.”

  7. I was never / am not agile enough to do crazy bike or ski jumps. I remember one time doing a jump form a cliff into a pool and that horrible feeling of teetering on the edge, and had it not been for peer pressure of my friend with me, well I’d still be standing there thinking about it. But ut is freeing to jump w/o much thinking.

    However, I still have trouble understanding the fear of jumping into clicking a submit button with your ideas. This paralyzing fear of being “wrong” or “criticized” or “sounding like a babbling idiot” is some sort of thing like being seen naked in public. I accept that other people deal with this differently, but there seems to not be much list, especially with many options to be anonymous, vague, and try things in spaces where it does not matter.

    Fear of failure keeps us stuck on the cliff. Jump, damnit

  8. @ Alan Levine I wonder if jumping more often makes it that much easier? I think I know the answer, but if it is universally believed that doing scary things more make them less scary why do people not go for it? When I was a kid we lived every summer on fishing creek outside of Bloomsburg, PA. A couple of miles up the creek was a bridge that we would ride our bikes to and jump off … it was high, probably 25 feet to the water (maybe more). I remember being around 8 or 9 and jumping the first time. My brain said go, but my muscles wouldn’t listen. And then I did it. From then on I craved that feeling — feeling like I own this fear. I think that is part of it for me … taking over and just jumping in.

  9. Maybe they’re afraid because they were involved in a flame war on a Unicode Listserv (they’re really harsh).

    All kidding aside, I do think you have a valid point. I am realizing that being part of the intellectual community is being willing to stick your neck out there.

    I’ve experimented with some tools I was a little dubious about, but some like Facebook have been surprisingly rewarding. Sometimes a gentle push off a cliff can be a good thing. I just like to have a parachute.

  10. @E. Pyatt I love the notion that it is participation in an intellectual community. Dean Chris Brady from the Honors College wanted his students in the blog/portfolio pilot because he is convinced there is value in them becoming “public intellectuals.” Being part of the conversation is a good thing.

    I hear more and more people coming around to the idea of the social web — that they were really nervous at first, but have come to find new opportunities through open participation. BTW, parachutes are a good thing!

  11. Responding to your and John’s point about willingness to fail as a necessary part of real learning, I agree but aren’t students socialized thru most of their K-12 and undergraduate experience that failure is like death, that it is the most awful thing, to be avoided at all costs? The current system of education doesn’t encourage risk taking and failure, and doesn’t usually support students when they do either. The current system doesn’t encourage learning from failure, but attaches such a stigma to it that students want to pretend it didn’t happen. How can we make education more like the real life that you describe?

  12. @ Steve That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I would say that designing learning opportunities that encouraged risk taking would be a good step. Perhaps finding ways to have students work together on difficult tasks that stretches them is another way to see how supportive they can be of each other in difficult situations.

    I think at the end of the day it is part of our responsibilities to model this kind of academic risk taking. What are we willing to push those around us (and like us) to design? What are we willing to do take intellectual risks ourselves? E. Pyatt makes a great point of participating openly in an intellectual community … perhaps there is something important in that notion we should explore — even in K-12.

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