Growing up I distinctly remember my parents telling me ‘Be careful!’ when dropping me off for school, and then yelling it as I was walking out the door to go dancing with friends. Even as an adult going off to college, or going on a trip: ‘Be careful!’. These words have lived in my mind for decades, and I kind of wished they hadn’t.
Being careful implies avoiding danger at all costs; removing ourselves from situations that might cause us harm, pain, or discomfort. The problem is that life comes with risks. Uncertainty is inherently associated with new experiences; and unless we are willing to take those risks, we are sure going to miss out a lot.
I have lived my life cautiously. Almost every decision I have ever made has been taken with caution—extreme caution. From the most trivial decisions, like bringing an extra sweater to an outing ‘just in case’, to the most transcendent ones like buying a car or moving to a new city. I was taught to look at every scenario, to ask what could go wrong, and to always have a plan B. And so, I lived my life on the uneventful side, the predictable side, the safe side.
I was always the kid with the extra sweater, scarf, and jacket… just in case. To date I am the woman who always carries extra cash, a water bottle, and a pen… again, just in case. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being prepared; I thrive on preparedness, on having a plan, a schedule, a to-do list. The problem is when you refrain from being spontaneous because it isn’t on the list, or it doesn’t fit in the schedule. When our lists and preparedness get in the way of living, something has got to change.
Being careful keeps you safe but isolated. You cannot live life to its fullest, so you stay whole and incomplete at the same time. Making mistakes, failing, and being heartbroken are all part of life; they help us grow, and teach us valuable lessons. In her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Dr. Laurie Santos explains that humans are naturally drawn to sharing. When we share an experience with others our emotions and feelings are intensified. There is a sense of belonging in knowing that others have also experienced what we have. But, how can we ever relate to others if we have missed out on so many experiences? Being too careful can be alienating.
Being careful makes you scared. You know they say it is worse not knowing? It is true. Our minds are powerful, and uncertainty about an event opens the doors of creativity which allows us to manufacture a variety of scenarios ranging from mild to full psychotic (most of us like to dwell on the later). Conquering a fear might be uncomfortable, it might be scary, it might even be painful, but at the end it is no longer uncertain. It becomes measurable, finite, you can give it a number or a name, you have control over it. This means that it will be easier next time you do it because “it wasn’t that scary the first time” or “yes, it was scary, but now I know what to expect”. By choosing not to participate in certain activities we give up our power over them, we let them control us. By being too careful, we allow our fears to steal precious memories and essential lessons from us.
Being smart, as opposed to careful, means that you take a situation, you analyze it and you decide whether or not to act on it, rather than dismiss it altogether because it might be dangerous. It means that you take a risk, because the pay off might be greater than the downside. It means that you come to terms with the fact that you will get burnt from time to time, you will fall, and you will be heartbroken. But it will also mean that you will experience love, success, and amazement. It means that you will experience the full spectrum of emotions; you will live life to the fullest, with its ups and down.
Being smart allows us to acquire one of the most, if not the single most important skill in life: resilience. Pick up a psychology book, or a self-improvement book—any book; you will find without a doubt an emphasis on the importance of resilience, the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. A study by Dr. Seligman back in the 1980’s done on college freshmen at University of Pennsylvania concludes that it is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties or failure what successful college students have that their peers don’t. It is not talent, but resilience that leads to success. The thing about resilience, is that you can’t get up if you haven’t fallen. You can’t try again if you haven’t lost. As much as it hurts, falling is an essential part of life. Every scar comes with an amazing story. Collect those!
My advice, to young and old alike, is to be smart, not careful. You don’t have to sell everything you own and start a new life right away, although it wouldn’t be the worst idea. Start small, try a different thing from the menu, that one item you have always been curious about; or talk to a stranger in the bus, ideally a normal looking person; or maybe pick up a new hobby, something your inner child would be proud of. Build off from that and allow yourself to grow.
If I could go back in time I would tell my 15-year old self: ‘Be smart, not careful. Take risks, venture, experiment! You will learn more about yourself by failing that you ever will by succeeding.’ I am not saying to throw caution to the wind, I am saying be smart about it. Consider the pros and cons, evaluate your options, play the odds. If it comes down to a 50-50 chance, take it! Get out of your comfort zone, make some memories and live.