…written by the creator of the cartoon character Dilbert…Scott Adams…and reprinted in its entirety below.
WHEN I WAS 15, a woodchuck that lived in a rock-strewn field in upstate New York taught me a valuable lesson about risk assessment. He was like an accidental Yoda, and I’ve thought about him often over the past year–which I’ve dubbed My Year of Living Dangerously.
The woodchuck taught me to approach life cautiously–perhaps too cautiously. As I coasted into the second half of my life, I decided that it was time to unlearn the woodchuck’s lesson and loosen up, take some risks, face my fears and enjoy the fullness of life. Perhaps you have a woodchuck of your own that you need to shake off. Maybe 2012 will be your year.
Here’s what happened: One summer, long ago, I was barreling through a field at about 25 miles an hour on my ancient Bridgestone motorcycle when the front tire decided to visit the foyer of a woodchuck’s underground lair. I’m not sure if anyone else in the world noticed, but while I was airborne, time slowed down for a few seconds.
In the first stage of my flight, while I was still facing toward the sweet, sweet Earth, I noticed that there were many large rocks in the direction that gravity preferred. As my flight continued, I reminded myself that I’m not an adventurer. Some people are born to take one physical risk after another. They thrive on the adrenaline rush. I’m not one of those people. When my body feels adrenaline, it means that I just did something extraordinarily stupid. This was one of those times.
About three-quarters into my aerial rotation, I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and personal savior, just to improve my odds. And I made a promise to myself that, if I lived, I would follow in the footsteps of my ancestors and lead a timid life, far from danger’s reach. As far as I know, there has never been a hero in my bloodline–not one soldier, police officer or fireman. I don’t know what that implies about my genes, but I’ve never lost a game of hide-and-seek where I was the hider.
By pure luck, or maybe because of my just-in-time religious conversion, I landed flat on my back in a rock-free patch of dirt. I was wearing a helmet and had no lasting injuries. But for about a week I could taste my brain. It had a cashew flavor.
From that day on, I kept my promise to myself and avoided all unnecessary physical risks. My strategy got easier when I became a syndicated cartoonist; I told anyone who would listen that I couldn’t risk injuring my drawing hand.
My danger-avoidance lifestyle worked, and I enjoyed a long string of injury-free years. But I always had a nagging feeling that I was missing out. How can you know if the chance you didn’t take was the one that would have enriched your life versus, for example, something that would have ended up with you chewing your own arm off to escape? Enrichment and arm-gnawing look roughly the same when viewed from the start.
My low-risk strategy got more complicated when I met Shelly, the woman I would marry. Shelly comes from a family of adventurers. In the final months of World War II, when her grandfather was 19 and the oldest surviving officer in his unit, he got the order to liberate a POW camp. So he did what anyone would do in that situation: He crashed a Nazi staff car into the front gate at high-speed while his men laid down suppressing fire. I asked him if he was scared. He said, “Nah. Wasn’t my time.”
The whole family is like that. They lack the fear gene, and they like doing new things no matter how good the old things are. Compounding this situation, they mate with people who are just as fearless. If you eavesdropped on a typical holiday gathering, you might hear the following snippets of conversation:
“The Taliban were all over that area, but our helicopter only got shot up once.”
“It didn’t hurt too much until the doctor scraped off the top layer of my skin to get the pebbles out.”
“The second round hit me as I dove into the truck. I guess we shouldn’t have gone to that bar.”
I noticed that all of Shelly’s relatives seem to be living life to the fullest. Did my brush with a woodchuck-related death in my formative years make me too cautious to enjoy life?
Experts say that people need to try new challenges to keep their minds sharp. That’s especially important in my case because I plan on living to 140, and I don’t want to spend my last 60 years trying to find the TV remote.
As 2011 approached, I wondered what would happen if, for the next 12 months, I said yes to any opportunity that was new or dangerous or embarrassing or unwise. I decided to find out.
If this whets your appetite for more…
…settle in for…part 2…