Risk and the Happy Reward

Without sacrifice, where is the payoff?

The County Election by George Caleb Bingham, 1852 (Flickr)

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” — H.L. Mencken, 1921

I took a risk last week, posting about politics and business as I did.

I even went on Laura Gassner Otting’s show Big Talk and talked about why I'm more outspoken now than ever before.

It was risky, being that open. And the risk showed: Laura described me as “a lifelong Republican” who is “one of Joe Biden's most ardent supporters.” And before even watching a second of the program, one of her commenters called me a scumbag and some other choice words.

As I said, it’s a risk.

I’m no stranger to colorful invective. The turns of phrase I came across while responding online for Ford introduced me to language I hadn’t heard since my early days working on farms.

But the reality is we all get excitable when we’re cheering on something we believe in. The trouble with the way it’s structured in America in a two-party system means that, like in athletic competitions, one side wins and the other loses.

George Washington, in his farewell address, noted the danger of dividing the country into separate parties, where one side might even ignore laws to get its way:

“All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

Consider that amid the ongoing news—lawsuits being prepared, attempts to get curbside ballots thrown out, the insistence that the winner be called on the evening of Election Day, the call to ignore mail-in and absentee ballots, the closing of polling stations, the limiting of the number of drop-off ballot boxes—all "obstructions to the execution of laws" by "a small but artful and enterprising minority."

As a person who writes, speaks, and gives counsel about integrity, I cannot remain silent. This is about character. And what we do now will define our character for the next generation.

When you take risks, you naturally become vulnerable. We talked about vulnerability a couple of weeks ago. Honesty, the willingness to ask for help, and deeper relationships are the result of vulnerability.

To take risks is to live.

William Arthur Ward summed up our fears in his poem “To Risk,” and it goes like this:

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,

To expose feelings is to risk exposing
your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams
before a crowd is to risk their loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk to failure.

But risks must be taken because
the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.

The person who risks nothing, does nothing,
has nothing is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.
Chained by his servitude he is a slave
who has forfeited all freedom.

Only a person who risks is free.

The yearning for freedom is universal—common ground for all of us. FDR summed up the most basic in his Four Freedoms speech when he enumerated freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

We wanted them in Roosevelt’s time, in Washington's time, and in our own. As Washington sought to free himself of the presidency, he closed his remarks with a hopeful view of life ahead in his retirement, noting the benefits of taking risks together:

“the benign influence of good laws under a free government…and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”

The happy reward.


“Politics is the art of the possible.” — Otto von Bismarck, 1867


It may be tempting to ban political talk during a passionate election cycle, but that might not be the right move. If you manage a team with opposing political views, that will take finesse. Some things you might consider: model inclusive behavior, establish rules, emphasize respect, seek to understand first. (Harvard Business Review)


It's not easy to take risks. There's fear, there's anxiety. But sometimes it just has to be done. Some simple hacks to help you take risks. (Forbes)


You thought Facebook exchanges with virtual friends were bad? Our politics are leaking over into Nextdoor. (Vox)


“In politics, what begins as fear usually ends in folly.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1830


A public act of praise, dissent, or original description may take on permanent value when it implicates concerns beyond the present moment. Where the issue is momentous, the commitment stirred by passion, and the writing strong enough, an essay may sink deep roots in the language of politics. A brief history of the political essay. (Literary Hub)


Feast of Fools: It's not a new concept, but American politics has become all about money. Another fine essay with some wonderful turns of phrase. (Lapham's Quarterly)


Even in seemingly objective situations, "my-side bias" colors how you look at your home team. Sometimes literally: A famous 1954 psychology study found that undergraduates at Dartmouth and Princeton Universities had completely different perceptions of a football game played between the rival schools. (APA PsycNet)

Recommended Listening / Reading

“Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” — Ambrose Bierce, 1906

🎧 RISK! is a live show and podcast where people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public, hosted by Kevin Allison of the legendary TV sketch comedy troupe, The State.

📒 In this unique exploration of the role of risk in our society, Peter Bernstein argues that the notion of bringing risk under control is one of the central ideas that distinguishes modern times from the distant past. Against the Gods chronicles the remarkable intellectual adventure that liberated humanity from oracles and soothsayers by means of the powerful tools of risk management that are available to us today.

Disclosure: This is an Amazon Affiliate link; I get a small commission when you make a purchase.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.