Man and woman standing on a cliff taking risks

Don’t Play It Safe

Don’t get the wrong idea! This is not a plea for foolhardiness, but rather a challenge to you to express more of your tremendous potential. To do so you need to cultivate stress up to a point, and you need to develop an appreciation for the lessons and potential growth that disease or problems can afford you.

You may have the impression that stress and disease are enemies and your job is to eliminate them from your life. But that is not true. Stress is necessary for life. Without it you’d be slithering on the ground instead of walking upright. Without it you’d be dead! Illness is a virtually unavoidable fact of life, and the sooner you accept it as a friend and teacher, the better off you will be.

The first step . . . shall be to lose the way.   – Galway Kinnell

We invite you to take risks—the kind that stretch you beyond your limited definitions of yourself and of what is possible. Life is a great adventure filled with impossible goals, which may seem beyond your grasp, but that you commit to all the same. To paraphrase Woody Allen, if you aren’t making any mistakes, or if people aren’t criticizing you, you probably aren’t taking any risks. You probably aren’t having any fun, and you certainly aren’t living and growing to your fullest potential.

Life is too close for comfort.  – Lee Lozowick

Health is a function of your participation in life. Those who play it too safe often end up lonely, isolated from others, or obsessed with their own health issues. Such attitudes limit one’s world and weaken the immune system as well. How about it? When was the last time you took a risk? Did something uncharacteristic? Committed yourself to a great task?

Here are a few simple suggestions to help keep life “unsafe”:

  • Avoid the well-balanced life. A life that is perfectly balanced is safe, limited, homogenized, and boring. Any programs that promise complete harmony are sure setups for failure and disappointment.
  • Cultivate chaos. Without chaos the possibility of serendipity is eliminated. Operate without your usual rules and schedules for a day or two, and refuse to let it be a problem. Let things break down and don’t fix them; then deal with the consequences. Learn what happens.
  • Think stress. Build your inner strength by cultivating situations that tax your courage, discipline, and commitment. If you’ve got a problem that you think is big or important, give yourself a bigger problem by taking on a commitment to a task “bigger than you are.” Now watch the first problem fall into place. And don’t be fooled by thinking that it necessarily means you will have to work harder. Busy, committed people quickly learn to work smarter!
  • Resist comfort. Avoid the numbing effects of a “walking death” by maintaining an edge of discomfort for yourself. If you run for a sweater every time you’re cold or turn up the air conditioner every time you’re hot, you’re keeping yourself insulated in more ways than one. Appreciate unavoidable pain and use it to learn what stuff you’re made of. Remedies that mask symptoms also mask the information that those symptoms might provide.
  • “Pig out.” The healthier your diet, the more important it is to indulge yourself, occasionally, with all the foods you think are “bad” for you (unless you are actually allergic to them).
  • Put on some music, pump up the volume, and dance!
  • Don’t be nice. Be simple. Be straightforward. Be caring. Be daring. Be wild. Be silly. Be uncharacteristic. Be anything . . . but don’t be N-I-C-E. Not all the time. You know what we mean. Yes, nice is a four-letter word.
  • Apprentice yourself to greatness. There is nothing harder yet ultimately more satisfying than being stretched beyond the limited vision you have for yourself. Fraternize with people who provoke you to greatness, who make you uncomfortable, who ask more of you than you think is possible. Study what they have to teach you.
  • Live your questions. It is a natural human phenomenon to find or see what we are looking for, and to overlook or miss what we haven’t anticipated. Our thoughts, and in this case our questions, will therefore mold our experience of reality. (For example, if you are fascinated by the nature and meaning of time, your questioning will motivate and direct you into situations where you will learn about time.) It is important to cultivate questions that are open-ended in order to live in an open-ended world. Otherwise we mold our world into black and white, and answer all questions with right or wrong, yes or no.

Now: List some of the ways in which you currently play it safe in your life. Determine one rule you’re willing to break, and do it.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . . the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

– Rainer Maria Rilke,
Letters to a Young Poet

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021