Back in what the kids now call "the day," my best friend Greg and I had an incredible knack for daring each other into doing some unbelievably stupid things.
And when we were hanging off a 50-foot embankment hiding from state troopers or flying down the thruway at triple digits in a car that made way too liberal use of duct tape or pouring the x-teenth shot of some expensive stolen liquor, one of us would invariably smile and quip:
"How'd they die?"
This became a tradition, more in the spirit of a rhetorical question than a gut-check. The point of it was to clarify that we had probably crossed the line while attempting to achieve whatever it was that seemed more than worth the anticipated risk at the consideration of said attempt.
It usually had to do with girls.
Thus, I learned to calculate risk at an early age. And not long after that, much like Han Solo staring down the asteroid field, I learned it's probably best to ignore those calculations.
As my four-year-old son would say: "NEVER TELLING ME WITH THE ODDS!"
There are two things aspiration must overcome pretty quickly.
Fear will stop you before you get started. Fear is that voice inside your head screaming "They're all gonna laugh at you!" Fear is what demands you keep quiet, stay in your cubicle, and buy that eighth pair of khaki pants.
Guts trump fear, sure, but as Greg and I proved over and over again, so does stupid. In fact, sometimes you need a whole plate of stupid to get you over that initial hump, to actually sneak into the dorm in the first place or put that first finished whatever out there to be consumed, digested, and likely ridiculed by someone other than your Mom.
Fear is easy.
Risk is a whole different animal.
Fear can be conquered. Risk must be managed. To do so, you'll need the fortitude to perpetually put something valuable on the line, long-term, in order to improve said value of that thing.
It's what you do with your money in the stock market. I've got ten grand, and if I put it in the bank, at the end of the year it'll be worth $10,007. If I choose a stock and invest, based on the level of risk involved, it could turn into $10,100 or $11,000 or $50,000.
The same thing happens with your writing at any level of success. I've gotten over my fear, been successful, and built an audience of, let's say, 10,000 people (Yeah. No). Without risk, I can easily produce exactly what that audience expects with barely noticeable differences and at the end of the year I can expect to maintain that fan base.
Or I can take some chances, do something unexpected, and watch that audience grow.
Or I can go all Charlie Sheen and watch it twist and become more grotesque on its way to flaming out.
Duh. Celebrity Apprentice.
The difference between risk in the stock market and risk in everything else, whether it be writing, your career, your relationship, is that if you choose the former and continually grind out the same sausage, you can expect any audience you've built to dwindle to zero anyway.
There is no FDIC for real life.
It took me a long time to learn this, not only in my writing but in every other aspect of my life. If I don't have a little turbulence in my flight path, things will invariably sneak up on me and go wrong all on their own.
And so lately, I've learned to actively introduce more risk in my life when things get too comfortable.
Again, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to instill fear. I'm not out there thinking about grabbing a cop's gun or going hang gliding or buying tickets to Soul Surfer.
I'm simply trying to increase the odds of fail in return for the chance at a greater overall reward. It's why I put myself out there as a writer, it's why I prefer working with startups, and it's why whenever Greg and I get together today we immediately revert to those 18-year-old idiots, much to the chagrin of our beautiful and understanding wives.
Who we never would have talked to in the first place if we didn't ignore the risk -- they're both way out of our league.
And it turns out to be kind of a cliché, but in my defense it's something that's a lot harder to actually pull off than talk about. I still find myself asking, in much different sense, "How'd he die?"
But these days it's not about falling off a roof, it's about careening off a comfortable path. However, it's still just as valid, because now I know that as long as I'm still asking that question, I'm still living.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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7.1.11 @ 8:39a
Excellent. One of the best things you've written.
7.4.11 @ 7:18p
"Duh. Celebrity Apprentice."