The Slopes of Vesuvius

Why risk is vital to growth

Photo by Leio McLaren
Heedless, mocking, violent — that’s how wisdom wants us; she is a woman and only ever loves a warrior.— Friedrich Nietzsche

The tyranny of numbers to which we are subject— money, weight, college rankings, hours worked— betrays the unhealthy emphasis our society places on external things.

The ancients, on the other hand, praised character because they knew that greatness was purely a function of your internal state. They esteemed each other not on what each has but on who each is. They were missionaries of wisdom and virtue whose actions reverberate across time and space because they beat mercilessly upon the drum of their individuality, regardless of the risk.

And it is precisely in expressing ourselves through risks where we’ve grown furthest apart from our great ancestors. We cower behind conformity lest we rock the boat or hurt someone’s feelings; we sedate ourselves with gossip from news feeds and allow high-tech parasites to drain our time, which is our life blood.

Instead of this, let’s leverage a risk-taking disposition to live for ourselves miniature versions of all humanity’s ages.

We’re made to take risks, and risks make us

Humans are so well engineered for risk-taking that you could say it’s precisely what we’ve evolved to do:

  • Our brains are meant to create, not to store huge amounts of information. This is why we’ve invented language, books, and mathematics to condense information. It is creation in the face of adversity that has allowed us to dominate our world, not the pedantic bloviating indicative of timid souls to whom appearances matter.
  • Our bodies are risk management machines in that they naturally calibrate to the maximum known level of stress along every dimension. This is why we don’t train through exposure to the average, we train through incremental stress increases. Intensity is the key.

These faculties relate to risk just as the fins of the fish imply that water exists and how the wings of an eagle presuppose air. Therefore risk-taking is strictly implicated by our existence, it is our correlative and forging fire through which we unlock latent aspects of ourselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

Who knows himself before he has been thrilled with indignation at an outrage, or has heard an eloquent tongue, or has shared the throb of thousands in a national exultation or alarm?

Given we are not static entities, but rather in a perpetual state of “becoming” what our thoughts and actions make us, no man can guess what abilities or feelings shall be unlocked by diving into new experiences, any more than he can draw the face of someone he’s never met.

What we fear of doing most is usually what we most need to do

The reason we don’t take the risks we should is simple: we are afraid of failing. However, we must realize that despite what we feel the realities of modern life have obviated the rational basis for most fears.

For example, the fear of public speaking is really the fear of negative judgement from others which could have meant exile, hence certain death, in ancient times. Obviously, times have changed and there is now very little we can fuck up from which we can’t recover.

If we yield to fear we’ll find that we lose control over our lives. As Emerson put it, we become people of routine in whom a literal obedience to the facts of life has “extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man.”

The obstacle in the way becomes the way

Sometimes risks won’t pay off. That’s perfectly fine and may even be preferable since failures catalyze the most growth. Nietzsche’s remark “that which does not kill us can only make us stronger” isn’t just a pithy saying, it is the truth.

The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius had the same insight thousands of years earlier when he noticed that fire tends to appropriate objects which are thrown upon it, using them as fuel to grow ever higher.

In other words, things in this life are not as black and white as they seem. What matters is not your ability to assess risk but how good you are at making shit happen once you pull the trigger.

Do obstacles quench your fire or do you burn them as fuel?

Live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! — Friedrich Nietzsche

We cannot truly thrive in a world without sharp edges and hard words because, as Nietzsche pointed out, obliterating them renders meaningful growth impossible and gets us well on our way to turning mankind into sand.

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