I’m Chris, I’m 29, and this is the most honest thing I’ve ever written. In the first let’s say (hope?) third of my life, I started three companies, visited 26 countries, lost all my money twice, saved one person’s life, and let too many friendships I valued more than I could show outwardly fall into disrepair. I also could have died at the ages of 4, 16 and 21. But I didn’t. Instead, I’m staring into the sunset of my twenties, and this is the story I didn’t know how to tell any sooner.
We jump into a lot of things in life without fully understanding the consequences. The first time it happened to me I was four years old in Puket, Thailand when I wandered away from my parents and jumped into a twelve foot deep pool 30 seconds before I learned how to swim. The water was sparkling below that hot afternoon sun, and I’d wanted to cool my tiny feet on the clear, tiled bottom.
No one was around to see me hit the surface. Seconds later only I knew something was terribly wrong. I wasn’t planting my feet, I was going down. I thrashed about, stubby arms fighting against the syrupy pressure.
Then a funny thing happened. I stopped going down, and started going sideways—my crude flailing became semi-deliberate strokes. Even when everything seemed lost, there was logic holding things together—certain actions that led to outcomes were up to me. I realized, even as a four year old, if I could control sideways, I could probably also control up and down, which meant I’d reach air, which meant this wasn’t the end of the story.
Most of the times when you dive into a new experience, you’ll come to a point where you flounder for a bit, things look bleak, and then you overcome via some mix of will, smarts and pure, arbitrary chance. Sometimes, you don’t. Life’s triumphs are often balanced out by tough losses.
You might even look at life as a hand-drawn line in history where different possibilities—different potential outcomes—come and go, intersecting at a given moment in our lives for us to grab hold of or let slip away. And whether you’re an aide-worker, public servant, entrepreneur, loving parent, scientist, athlete or something else entirely, each potential outcome where you stand up for something, make a decision and take hold of the pen is a pretty courageous bet on human potential. When we embrace all the possibilities out there—that something could go wrong, that a path won’t lead where we expect it will, or maybe, just maybe, in spite of whatever flaws, fears and near-sightedness hold us back— opportunities come up to take the hand life’s dealt us and play it remarkably. Taking risks says you want to be the one drawing your line, not shying away from real or imaginary borders.
I don’t know exactly what trajectory the old French woman in the shopping mall in Marseille might have taken if I hadn’t been right behind her at the top of the escalator when she lost her footing and fell backwards. It was early morning, and I was hungover, shopping for books to read on my Eurail ride to Rome. As she lost her balance, teetering on the brink of possibility, I briefly saw two different outcomes for both of us that morning. Thankfully we don’t need to talk about the second, because I caught her; I stopped her from falling, softly repeating “pas de problème” as I helped her to her feet.
An hour later I carried a fresh stack of Tin Tin and Asterix comics back to the hostel where I said goodbye to the drinking friends I’d made earlier in the week. They were exchange students from Virginia Tech, passing through the Côte d’Azur on their way to Madrid. This was 2005, meaning most—hopefully all—of them graduated on to jobs and families the following spring, exactly one year before a depressed, deranged student walked into a building on campus and opened fire.
I never kept in touch with any of those friends after Marseille—in fact keeping in touch with anyone farther away from Brooklyn than Boston is something I’m habitually terrible at —but I’m willing to bet they believe in the importance of embracing life’s possibilities just as vehemently as I do, and are probably even more acutely saddened to know some of the brightest possibilities are abruptly limited. In that pool in Puket, the car crash in Kansas City, or the airplane malfunction a thousand feet over Milwaukee it’s easy to see an alternate possibility for me too.
As we get older, it’s easy to feel like the more history and context we have behind us, the narrower and more pre-determined the road ahead becomes. I’ve started finding it harder to want to take big, disruptive risks myself. Instead, I’m more apt to chase the incremental—a controlled business bet, an easier weekend getaway, a text rather than a call. Some of us probably swung for the fences at one point or another, struck out, and the memory of that still stings enough to make you want to go for the safe base hit instead.
So I’m writing this to remind myself where I’ve come from, to reset my thinking, and maybe also change, challenge or reinforce yours. Each incremental day—and the families, relationships and responsibilities that build along with them—doesn’t necessarily narrow the Monte Carlo distribution of the future we’re walking into, it can actually widen it as we gain new experiences, make new friends and talk to each other about new ideas. Time’s got gravity to it, sure, but the opportunities, events, people and accidents that open up exciting new avenues are out there. Let’s all keep looking for them— up, ahead and around us.
Embrace positive risks, go start adventures, go build things that are valuable to you and make others happy, and, in the words of Walter Pater, “on this short day of frost and sun, [don’t] sleep before evening.”
See you out there.