I went kayaking on the Snake River in Idaho a few years ago, accompanying a group on a raft, and the put‑in was immediately upstream of a large and long Class IV rapids, which was a bit off-putting right up front. I was given the option of riding that first set of rapids in the raft, my kayak strapped to the back.
But when I asked one of the guides for her recommendation, she said this: "Most people talk themselves out of kayaking this first rapid, but once we’re through it, most of them also say, ‘I could have done that.’" (Translation: I should have done that.)
I decided not to be one of those people, and it was among the great thrill rides of my life.
How much of a sense of control you have over a given risk will help determine how likely you are to take it on, despite the odds. We may fear the experience of falling, for instance—an inheritance from our arboreal ancestors—but we get a kick out of a controlled fall, à la skydiving, bungee jumping, roller coasters, and even, sometimes, falling in love.
My chances of making a decent living as a freelance writer have probably been equivalent to my chances of a skydiving accident, both of them remote, but I’d much rather strap myself into my desk chair than into a parachute. I feel far more in control, the consequences of failure are far less dire, and should I begin to fail, I’d at least have numerous opportunities to self-correct on the way down, compared with skydiving’s singular Plan B: one reserve parachute.
Besides, my passion for it tends to diminish my perception of its risks, and amplify my perception of its rewards, even my sense of control over it. Perhaps my eagerness and determination translate into optimism, helping see me through the fear and doubt—insisting on finding a way through. In a curious way, risk may be a kind of reward for the passionate, as it’s the surest way to make new discoveries and explore new territories.
We usually equate intelligence with reason rather than passion, but sometimes the most reasonable thing you can do is precisely to follow your passions, if you define reason as "sound judgment and good sense."
I recently received a letter from a woman who described being an attorney as something that she hates "deep down," is "soul-killing," makes her feel like she’s "living in a cage," "living someone else’s life," and only "half a life" at that. She said she’s "always held back" from what and who she truly wants to be, and meanwhile her "well has totally dried up."
Now given this state of affairs, would it make sense for her to continue practicing law, since it’s certainly a sensible career—the paycheck, the prestige? Would it be sound judgment for her to ignore other passions that make her feel fully alive rather than half alive? And is it a coincidence that there’s an organization in San Francisco called Lawyers in Transition, specifically devoted to helping people get the hell out of that profession, and a popular blog called Lawyers With Depression, for those still in it?
This isn’t to suggest that passion is all-powerful and gut feelings infallible, or that feeling in control is a guarantee of success. It was gut feelings, after all, that prompted so many people to quit flying and start driving in the year after the 9/11 attacks—imagining that just because they felt more in control, it was safer, when statistically it is not—and this ended up adding almost 2,200 traffic fatalities to the average that year, according to a 2009 Cornell University study.
Sometimes we’re less concerned about risk than we ought to be—people who choose driving over flying, smokers who shrug off their chances of getting lung cancer, people who’ve had a few drinks and insist that they’re fine behind the wheel of a car—but just as often, we overestimate risk and consequences and so shrink from opportunities.
Sometimes the antidote is simply thinking things through rather than going on pure gut or trusting whatever seemingly plausible conclusion comes quickly to mind. You won’t make truly informed decisions, or take truly intelligent risks, if you don’t apply thinking to feeling.
For instance, you may refuse to send your creative works out into the world because you’re terrified of rejection, believing you’ll be devastated by it, and it will only prove your worthlessness. But you have to think through how your life might unfold, or fail to unfold, if you never take the chance, if you keep your gifts and passions locked in a drawer. You have to think through not only how you’d feel about yourself if you got rejected (and why you’d feel that way), but how you’d feel about yourself if you never tried—or if you got accepted.
For that matter, you’re probably better off not even thinking in terms like failure and success. Rather, think like a scientist: life is an experiment, and there are only results.
This article is adapted from Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion by Gregg Levoy. © 2014 by Gregg Levoy. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House LLC. It is reprinted with permission.