I heard someone advertise a group the other day as a “safe environment to be risky.” The point was to encourage people to try things they might not otherwise. But it got me thinking: can there ever be risk in a “safe environment?” Are the two ideas not wholly contradictory?

To take a risk implies that there is some sort of consequence for failure. This scares most people, and rightly so. At an animal level, existence is largely a series of risk/reward calculations. But we take risks every day. We have to. Most of them are pretty benign, the penalty for failure minor, but nothing of importance ever arises without some risky behavior.

Just about any book on creativity will tell you that to be creative you have to take risks. You have to be willing to try things no one has ever tried before, to fall on your face time and again in the service of really goofy ideas until you strike upon brilliance.

As a society we are so afraid of losing face. We avoid so many risks that would be good risks to take because we don’t want to feel stupid. Can you imagine what our world would be like, though, if we were so eminently forgiving and accepting of one another that we felt free to take little risks all the time? Think of what we would create, what we would innovate!

I guess in a circular way I’ve answered my own question. In a society like that, you could pretty objectively say it was safe to take risks. The only penalty for failure would be the waste of a little time. So maybe that’s what this speaker was driving at. Still, laying aside a certain time and arena to say, “And now we’re going to take some risks” feels a bit artificial to me. But I guess that’s a risk they’re taking. And maybe they’ve stumbled upon something in that risk. Who’s to say it’s not the beginning of a society perfected in mutual love?

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