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Archive for June, 2015

#24 — On Taking Risks: “But what if . . . ?”

June 19, 2015 1 comment

Wesley Branch Rickey’s career as a major league baseball player only lasted from 1905 through 1907. During those years, Rickey struggled to earn a position with both the St. Louis Browns and the New York Highlanders. Finally giving up the idea of being a player, Rickey went back to study administration in college and then in 1913 began a highly successful career as a baseball executive. From then until his death in 1965, Rickey served in varying capacities, including General Manager and head of player personnel development for the St. Louis Browns, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. It is in this series of roles that Branch Rickey earned his place in baseball history.

In 1945, while serving as General Manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey signed a young man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson to a minor league contract to play for the Dodger’s affiliate in the International League. For major league baseball, this was “the shot heard round the world.” Jackie Robison would subsequently become the first African-American to play for a major league team, joining the Dodgers two years later as their second-baseman. Indeed, he would not only play, he would become major league baseball’s first Rookie of the Year in 1947, be elected to the National League All-Star team for six straight seasons, from 1949 through 1954, and be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949.

Yet these accomplishments would not have been possible had not Branch Rickey been willing to accept a considerable risk. He knew that Jackie Robinson would be facing terrible obstacles — racism, discrimination, bigotry, and other abusive treatment. Rickey carefully coached the youngster and insisted that no matter what kind of provocation he might be subjected to, he was not to react, he was not to lose his temper, but rather just tend to the business of playing baseball. And Robinson did just that. Despite the abuse he received, the young man stayed focused and played consistently well, gradually becoming extremely popular with the American public and paving the way for future African-Americans in the major leagues.

Together Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson changed baseball and through that American culture. Those changes are still rippling today, and in some areas still meeting with resistance. Yet none of it would have happened as it did had the two not been willing to accept the risks that came with the changes they helped create. And as Rickey once noted at the time, “Problems are the price you pay for progress.”

To be sure, progress means change, and the desire for change brings a good many people to my office for therapy. Having varying degrees of dissatisfaction with their lives, they want something about themselves or their circumstances to change so their problems can be solved, and they can live happily ever after. Moreover, they expect me to explain or show them how this can happen easily and painlessly.

As a therapist, I have come to understand that life really is about problems. It’s not that we just handle our problems and then go on with our lives; rather, our lives are all about dealing with whatever our next problem happens to be. Yet many of the people who come to see me have the idea that life shouldn’t be about problems or struggles, that it’s really easy if you just know how! They seem less than satisfied when I explain that while knowing how to change is easy, doing it isn’t, because discomfort is the price of change. After all, the only way to make your “comfort zone” bigger is to get out of it!

What keeps these people rooted where they are, seemingly unable to take any action on their own behalf, is fear — fear of disapproval, fear of humiliation, fear of being seen as “different,” or fear that they will reveal themselves as incapable or unworthy of anything better. Paralyzed by this fear, they remain unwilling to risk any of these outcomes and, as a result, have little hope for any improvement in their circumstances.

Therapy begins by helping these people grasp the idea that risk is an integral part of life, that indeed there is no life without risk. While we rarely think about it consciously, we routinely assume that we live in an orderly world and that we are competent to take care of ourselves in that world. Yet upon reflection we must concede that things can happen without warning to remind us that we really have much less control and are really at much greater risk than we realize. Moreover, in this world where we have so little control, change is happening constantly. Our options, then, are not to avoid change and the risks involved but rather to decide if the changes impacting our lives will all happen to us or if at least some of them will happen from us.

As people start to come to terms with this reality, some of them actually begin to consider the kinds of changes they might make. Soon they start to weigh the potential benefits of these changes against the possible risks, and many things they had previously not even dared contemplate suddenly begin to appear possible. As this process continues, many of these people are also able to recognize that, while unpleasant, most of the possible consequences they have come to dread would only be temporary and can indeed be endured.

From here we discuss the mechanism of change and how it drives the ongoing process that represents all our lives. This mechanism is remarkably simple: You must catch yourself preparing to repeat an old behavior so you can replace it with a new one; then you have to accept the discomfort that comes with the new behavior until that behavior becomes familiar. (Anyone who has ever dieted knows how this works!) Finally, we note how discomfort is a necessary part of the change process, how change is a fundamental aspect of growth, and how growth is what life is. So, in a sense if you are not uncomfortable a good part of the time, you are not truly living. And indeed, the most common form of our discomfort is our fear of what might happen if we try to change.

Make no mistake: Accepting risk as an integral part of life tends to produce a sense of freedom, enabling us to take more control over ourselves and our lives. Moreover, where there is no fear, there is no courage. After all, it does not take courage to do something that does not frighten you. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson are both credited with having great courage. Don’t think they were not also afraid.

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