A full life is one in which I’m living the full expanse of human experience, and risk is a big part of that.
Risk-taking is dangerous. By its very definition, accepting risk means placing oneself in the way of potential harm—financial ruin, grievous injury, even death—to obtain a potential reward. It’s a core trait of humans, one that moved us forward and helped us conquer the world. Without risk-takers, we never would have left Africa (that’s a long walk!). We never would have become big-game hunters (mammoths are dangerous!). We never would have circumnavigated the world or gone to the moon. Without taking risks, the world would be much smaller and less interesting. The people we admire most in this world, like inventors, creators, entrepreneurs, adventurers, explorers are all major risk-takers. Risk runs through our veins.
But there are good risks to take and bad risks to take.
Every single day, millions of people take awful risks: eating the standard American diet, skipping the gym, watching TV instead of going for a walk. These offer short-term benefits—triggering the reward circuits in our brains, avoiding 30 minutes of hard physical work, watching moving pictures on an LED screen, and experiencing brief moments of amusement—while destroying our bodies, minds, and longterm health outcomes. We’re risking our health, vitality, and ability to think, move, and create for a few minutes of pleasure or leisure.
The problem is that we don’t notice the damage happening in real time. When you eat a fast food meal or skip a workout, there’s zero risk up front (no one dies or gets diabetes from a single meal or missed workout right away), just benefits. Even if the long-term risk of poor health practices is massive, the damage develops slowly enough that we don’t consider it “risky behavior.”
Diabetes, obesity, and other longterm health consequences of these risky decisions are all bad enough, but perhaps the worst part is that they limit your ability to take the risks you should be taking—the positive risks with big demands up front and longer range benefits, the kind that run through the better instincts of every human on this planet.
When early humans decided to strike out across the land bridge connecting Eurasia to North America, that was risky. They didn’t know where they were going, how they’d live, or what they’d find. Many died along the way. Some groups didn’t make it. But those who did made it possible for humans to expand all the way to the tip of South America. Big initial risk, big consequences up front, big longterm payoff.
When Polynesian mariners left the safety of their mainland home to explore the entire South Pacific, that was risky. Many could have died. Many did. But they learned to read the currents, stars, and seabirds to navigate the seas and populate hundreds of islands spanning thousands of miles. Big initial risk, big long-term payoff.
Not that I’ve accomplished anything like Polynesian mariners or Eurasian settlers of North America, but I’ve had my moments. I devoted my early adulthood to elite competition—not exactly a secure livelihood. Later when I started Primal Nutrition, I risked everything I had: my savings, my family’s security, my cushy job. With a wife and two small kids at home, I put it all on the line to take a risk on something I believed could work out. And it did. It might not have, but it did. Big initial risk, big long-term payoff.
I couldn’t do it any other way. I’ve always been drawn to risk—professional, athletic, creative. It’s in my fiber. Without the challenge, I wouldn’t be me. Risk has been my means to actualization. The fact is, even if those ventures hadn’t worked out, I still needed them to come into my own. My story has its share of failures, too, but every one of them was pretty essential. They all served the same aim as my successes did—to expand my experience in the world and push my own boundaries.
Humans have to take big risks. It’s part of the reason we manufacture risk, even when we have every creature comfort in the world. Skydiving, bungee jumping, big wave surfing, snowboarding, and free solo rock climbing are some of the ways we inject physical risk into our otherwise comfortable lives. It’s not just about the long-term rewards, either. It’s the process of facing down danger or ruin or embarrassment for experiences that elevate us. It’s knowing that everything hangs in the balance and still taking that chance because a risk is worth the expansion.
But to even be able to take those meaningful risks and live into the full measure of our potential, we need our health. Good health is the foundation. Imagine trying to navigate thousands of miles of ocean on an outrigger canoe with poor physical stamina. Imagine trying to walk the Bering Strait without the strength to carry your supplies. Our risks aren’t always so physical these days, but they still require physical health.
Why? Real risk-taking requires a healthy brain and ample energy.
Eating junk food cooked in refined, rancid seed oils packs our mitochondria full of damaged omega-6 fats. When that happens, the mitochondria—our cellular power plants, the engines of life as we know it—produce less ATP, generate less energy. Try coming up with the motivation to start a business with inadequate ATP and dysfunctional energy production. Why would we put ourselves at such a disadvantage?
We’re risking our health, vitality, and ability to think, move, and create for a few minutes of pleasure or leisure.
“I let go of fear in order to thrive beyond the tepid promises of security”
Physical movement increases blood flow and improves cognitive function. If you’re not training and moving on a regular basis, your brain simply won’t be operating at its full capacity. If you’re sitting around all day, your brain slows down, becomes unprepared to handle life. Your lack of resilience for physical stress means your resilience for other kinds of stress is compromised too.
I don’t have to imagine what doing what I do without good health would be like. I know it. I spent the better part of my 20s and 30s fit on the outside, decrepit on the inside. I could put in the miles for training but limped around on my off days. I mustered the motivation to race but had no energy for my family. When I try to imagine leading the life I lead today and taking the risks I take with the health, energy levels, and drive I had back then, it’s a joke. I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Despite being health-conscious, invulnerability isn’t my aim. Actualization is. My goal isn’t to live to be 100, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. It’s to compress morbidity and enjoy the biggest life possible in the number of years I’m alive on this planet. I let go of the ultimate outcome in the interest of living big today. I let go of fear in order to thrive beyond the tepid promises of security. I choose to live a healthy life—not because I’m trying to out-eat or out-run the ultimate call of mortality that tolls for all of us at some point. I live healthily so I have the opportunity to continue taking the risks that mean the most to my sense of joy, connection, and purpose in this life.
MARK SISSON IS THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE KETO RESET DIET.
Risk-taking is essential to being human. It’s what sets us apart from other animals—the foresight to risk short-term consequences for long-term gains.
Risking our health with poor diet, sedentary days, inadequate sleep, and chronic stress decisions impairs our ability to generate energy, use our brains, and make the good risks that give big payoffs.
Healthy risks should expand and amplify our lives, not contract or dampen them.
Taking risks makes you feel alive because risk-taking is living.
Identify where you’re cutting corners on your health and vitality. Where are you robbing your potential with poor lifestyle choices?
Ask yourself: What are the risks that would feel good to me now—the euphoria of a new physical sport, the excitement of a new creative or business venture, the novelty of travel, etc.?
Track the lifestyle actions that preserve/create energy (e.g., going to sleep sooner, improving your fitness routine, eating better, using intermittent fasting if that works for you).
Track the time and energy investments you’re making in the risks that expand your life, further your actualization, and feed your happiness. ■