Risk Management 101: Aim to Fail

My middle school years were difficult, as I allude to frequently here  on the blog – probably frequently enough that you are ready for me to gosh, stop talking about it already.  As I watch Milo, at a bit over one year old, spend his mornings grinding puzzle pieces and Cheerios of questionable age into the wool carpet, I can only hope and pray that his experience will be different, and prepare for the worst by investing in both a Sam's membership (for the bulk-wrapped Kleenex boxes) and a punch card for mom therapy sessions, also known as Time Alone.  They make punch cards for that, right?

If you can’t tell, I am preparing for the worst: that he will take after me.

Which he might.  

Who really knows these things?

However, something magical happened one day in 1997, during the spring of my eighth grade school year.  It took place in a badly lit, undersized gymnasium, which if I remember correctly, had dark wood paneling all the way to the ceiling, and which alternately housed school lunch tables and rousing games of wallyball (which apparently, to my gawking amazement, is a real thing).  In an effort to lure me from my isolated, ever-shrinking shell of social anxiety, my parents had encouraged me to attend some open gym volleyball sessions, hosted by the coach of what would later be my high school varsity team, Chris.  I didn't know it then, but that day would be another link in a chain of significant transformation in my life.  And it happened like this (Disclaimer: probably not verbatim. Aka, definitely not verbatim.):

Chris: "Until I say to stop, run back and forth across the gym with your arms at your side.  Pretend that you only have shoulders, and that anything distal exists in the flexible state of orange jello: wiggly and formless and completely out of control."

Now, don't get me wrong - wiggly and formless and completely out of control is my natural state of being, but at that time, asking this behavior of me constituted the emotional risk of breakdancing my way to the front of a prison firing squad.  My anxiety level was at DEFCON 1.

However, of all the things I was at the time – including my excessive knack for apprehension – a submissive spirit topped the list, and so off I went, reluctantly but promptly skittering across the gym.

I ran around that room like a tightly wound doll, but quickly transformed into the human equivalent of a young basset hound, with my arms and hands wagging around like floppy ears and droopy jowls and my body sweat dripping to the floor like drool from a dog’s mouth.  I recall having to remind myself to relaxrelaxrelax, consciously making an effort to let my body parts behave as if I were unconscious.  I was focusing so hard on flailing that I'm amazed I didn't accidentally slam into a preteen or trip on my shoelaces.  

I can only imagine how ridiculous we looked, the wiggly crew of us, but in that small exercise, as was true of my previous venture into synchronized swimming, my life was beginning to change.  It didn't happen overnight, and I didn't transform into an entirely new person.  That said, I did become what I know was a better, more healthy version of the girl that hid underneath that bashful, anxious exterior.  

Physical risk is powerful.  Taking risks can stimulate change or reinforce stagnancy.  Risk can be a path to social and emotional growth, or it can be a manner of escape.  I would guess that more often than not, you and I would choose to take a physical challenge over an emotional one if we were given the chance.  See, we know that the outcomes of physical risk are predictable.   When bungee jumping, the risk is normally death or critical injury due to a high velocity smash into the ground.  Two of the many risks of climbing Everest are HAPE or HACE.  The risk of swimming across the Pacific is SHARK (not an acronym, just scary as all getout).  On the other hand, if you are confronting a deep personal fear, for example, the risk is... a little more complicated, a little more elusive, and can feel surprisingly more dangerous than something tangible or visible.

What is so special to me about this awkward memory is the fact that such small physical risks like this one reset my course toward a path of more healthy interaction with emotional and social risks for years to come.  I made friends and enjoyed school, and developed a sense of self, and faith, and even found a cool guy who was willing to flail through life with me.


Miracles happen everyday, folks.

I attended a few Zumba classes this spring, which was significantly more fun and fabulous than I ever imagined.  With that said, I'll admit that it's still not easy for me to walk into a room of strangers, and let all of this flap around like a squirrel in flight.  While Zumba-ing, I inhabit a lateral swath of maple gymnasium floor with my arms and legs whipping back and forth in a room full of other bodies, fellow men and women flailing away to a latin beat. This experience has felt pretty much the same as that evening of open gym so many years ago, only that much more of me jiggles now.  I felt happy.  I giggled through much of each workout, occasionally interrupting my laughter with bouts of intense focus on the instructor's footwork and stopping for frequent water breaks and gasps for air.

In both of these stories, I have felt like a total oddball, which is scary for me, like I’m standing within a crowd wearing only blaze orange underwear.  But because in each of these cases I was surrounded by what was, in each moment, a sea of oddballs, I felt safe.  Now, I know that we aren’t always able to jump out of our comfort zones in the company of others, but if you are, it can be a great way to prime your engine for taking some individual risk in the future.  I’m an advocate for that, because if peer pressure is really a thing, well, we might as well be doing some good with it, right?

Parent Sidebar: As I write this, I am recalling how often enough I hear parents comment on how they need to be more conservative about what risks they take, as they have little ones to care for and can’t risk breaking their leg or missing time at work.  Hear me:  I understand.  I would never want to put my life at risk for the sake of momentary enjoyment or selfish ambition.  But with that said, if I don’t risk anything at any time for any reason, will Milo risk anything ever?  Will he take a risk when it’s worth it?  If I don’t, and he doesn’t, who wins in that scenario?  I’ll tell you:  No one.  In fact, in that scenario, everyone loses.  We may have remained safe by not assuming the risks, but we’ve completely missed out on the resulting growth.

Among other injuries due to grabbing adventure by the horns, my dad tore his MCL and meniscus skiing when I was in elementary school.  Missing work and suffering through PT, recovering, and some quality time with the doc:  not cool for dad.  A father who busts himself skiing a killer line because he isn’t afraid to tackle something hard?  So cool.  And more than cool, it was, for a young me, a picture of courage, which was something I desperately needed to identify and embrace.

Risks are risks because they are at some level inherently unsafe, but know that I am not advising anyone to head out for a run this afternoon in Death Valley or something of an obvious, dangerous nature.  If you want to train to run in Death Valley, fine.  Unfortunately, I have a sinking feeling you'll be training alone, 

because that sounds terrible.

So in conclusion, let's take some risks.  Let's get out of our comfort zones.  I know that  I need to, and perhaps, just perhaps, it's not just me.  The next time you get invited to trapeze class, or to hike the Long Trail or have to change the Jeep tire alone on the side of a deserted logging road in a skirt and sandals, remember that your sweat and nerves are only the beginning of something much greater.  The physical struggle will make you question your resolve, your strength and your fundamentals, but if you persevere, you’ll find out that you are made for so much more than you ever imagined.  


An Athlete of the Nautical Persuasion

I could have married that beanbag.  

If I had to guess, I’d estimate that I spent a third of my 6th grade school year nestled into the yellow beanbag chair in the back of our classroom.  I’d pull the hood of my cotton sweatshirt over my head, and settle in for however long Mrs. Bascom, the short-haired 5th and 6th grade teacher, would permit.  She was pretty generous.  

Apart from acquiring some shockingly bright Lisa Frank stickers, my 6th grade year left a lot to be desired.  It was smack in the middle of my sweat pant-wearing, Goosebump-reading, moody and melancholy experience of junior high.  I was still donning rastafari Tweety Bird t-shirts and playing with stuffed animals, all while my peers were reading Jane Eyre, crushing on boys and singing along with Gavin Rosdale on their Walkmen.  I felt incredibly uncool, and were it not for a couple of merciful friends, might have burrowed so far into that beanbag that I would have needed bottled oxygen.  

Psychedelic Baby Seal Trapper Keeper.  This will take ocean swimming off of your bucket list.

Then along came Mrs. Bascom.  She only taught at our school for that single year, and I have a few lingering memories hinting that she wasn’t well liked by the students.  I’m not sure that I even liked her all of the time.  Somehow, though, she found a way into my dreary, preshrunk cotton world.  Aside from allowing me to learn from my cushy perch at the back of the room, she also introduced me to creative writing (fabulously dramatic poetry) and even at one point, told me she thought I could have a future in synchronized swimming.  



If I were anyone else, this would have been my Aha Moment.  The punch line.  The fleece pulled out from over my eyes.

But I’m not anyone else.  And it wasn’t.  

Strapping on my swimsuit like a coat of arms, I cannonballed into the pool with her high school aged daughter, who was, in fact, a real-life synchronized swimmer.  I feathered my hands through the water.  I flutter-kicked my legs.  I did my best to hold my arms straight up in the air, from the soft skin of my biceps to my pale, unpolished fingernails.  I may have even worn nose plugs for the first time, though I can’t say for sure.  

It felt like a dream.  A dream that stank of chemicals and sweat and pure awesomeness.

I don’t remember at all what transpired after this visit to the pool, but I know that my budding career never materialized the way that I’d thought it might.  I imagine that I busied myself with my typical concerns: wondering how I could adjust my afternoon plans to incorporate the Lion King theme song, consuming a whole bag of plain potato chips, magnetic earrings, and going by the name Heather, which was my favorite (followed closely by Maxi, followed closely by Heather again).  

What I take away from my brief calling as a luminary of the chlorinated world was the fact that a middle-aged woman took a glum sixth grader and gave her hope.  Hope for a future, perhaps as a National Poet Laureate, or perhaps as an athlete of the nautical persuasion, but fundamentally as a person worthy of interest.  Did I have talents that were undiscovered?  Was I compelling?  Would anyone listen if I had words to say?  “Yes”, she said.  

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

My parents had been affirming me for years, as had, I’m sure, other teachers and adults in my life, but when your emotions feel so heavy and your persona feels more like a suit to wear than your real self, it gets difficult to carry on with a smile.  When you have perceived so many discouraging messages (and what preteen hasn't), the truth seems like a voice not meant for you to hear.   

My life didn’t change overnight.  It took a few years before I really began to feel at home in my body and mind, but this was the beginning.  For as many of us who have felt the transformative power of someone’s belief, there are even more who haven’t.  While I may have been the only girl my age tucking in her Pound Puppy at night, I know that I wasn’t the only kid who worried that she would never find her place.  

Mrs. Bascom let me wallow in the beanbag, but she didn’t leave me there.  Her encouragement didn’t lead me to pursue a lifetime of impressive athletic feats, but rather demonstrated to me that I was a person of value, and that I should dream, because I was capable and interesting and had undiscovered talent.  And to this day, when I write of hopeful things, such as this, I look back and think of my sixth grade teacher.  

With this said, I have to ask myself whether I realize that I am equipped to do exactly what Mrs. Bascom did.  Do I believe that I have the ability to speak the future into someone’s life?  Do you?  With less work than you or I might imagine, we can shoot up flares of confidence over hundreds of uncertain horizons.  Just like a changed track will divert a train down a new path, whatever encouragement we can give to the lives we intersect with has the potential to permanently alter their trajectory.  Let me say that again:  something as simple as our encouragement can permanently alter someone’s trajectory.  And perhaps, hopefully, that affected life will someday repeat the process.  

So, let us be kind and be present.

Let us listen well and perceive what is beyond the words we hear.

Let us utter words of hope.  Inspire confidence.  Instill value. 

Just as Mrs. Bascom helped me see that I had something to contribute to this world, you and I have been given the opportunity to take someone’s hand and lift that person out of their proverbial beanbag chair.  Are we doing it?  

When you are worried that you aren’t good enough to help someone else, or that you don’t have it all together, relax.  

Please, relax.  I am worried too.

But none of us are perfect, and yet we are perfectly fit for this job.  

So let us be brave, and you and I can shoot up a flare of confidence over a hundred horizons.  Perhaps together we can light up the sky.

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