To Find What You Love, Think of Your Tolerance for Risk

To figure out what you truly love to do, one common piece of advice encourages you to think back to the activities you liked as a kid. Childhood is typically free of the constraints that come with adult life — bills, deadlines, the pressure to hit life milestones like getting married or owning a home — so the way you spent your time at age 10 can be a solid indicator of the kind of work you might enjoy now.

In practice, though, this advice is also a little too vague to be that helpful. Unless you were the type of child who obsessively made up new recipes, or spent hours taking apart electronics in the garage, or had some obvious world-class talent, you probably remember your childhood as a jumble of various, short-lived pursuits.

There’s a more effective way to clue into your talents, and I learned it from Dilbert creator Scott Adams: Trace back your tolerance for risk.

In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Adams explains that it was his “risk profile” that predicted his future. Starting in grade school, he would draw comics involving his classmates and teachers, which often got him in trouble when an adult found them. Still, despite the high chance of being caught and punished, he continued to create new comics.

“I was willing to take a significant personal risk for my so-called art, and this was in sharp contrast to my otherwise risk-averse lifestyle,” Adams writes. “People generally accept outsized risk only when they expect big payoffs. Drawing inappropriate comics made me happy. To me, it was worth the risk.” Adams contrasts this example with a story about the time he owned a $150 used motorcycle as a teen. After a few accidents, he decided it wasn’t worth the trouble: “I wasn’t willing to accept a high risk in return for the joy of riding.”

Looking back at my own risk tolerance is similarly illuminating. When I was younger, writing was the only creative pursuit I ever tried where I had fun pushing limits. In my English classes, I’d always try to plant a unique twist in my essays, which I’d sometimes be scolded for. I also wrote poems and song lyrics at home. I’d hide them around my room, reveling in the idea that someone might accidentally find them. I’d wonder, What would they think? Would they like what they read? I didn’t voluntarily share these pieces of writing with anyone, but the possibility that they might be seen anyway made writing more enjoyable.

Think about your life as a kid. Would you collect bits of trash to add to your Play-Doh sculptures, even after your parents told you to throw that stuff out? Would you swipe your mom’s magazines and cut out your favorite photographs? Would you put on mini-musicals at the playground, even if you knew others kids might laugh? Look at those moments as clues.

Of course, remembering your boldest childhood ventures will only be so useful because you’ve developed plenty of new abilities and interests since then. But your most audacious pursuits can still serve as helpful guides — a way to reveal the places where, with hard work, perseverance, and some good luck, you may soar.

This post was previously published on Forge and is republished here with permission from the author.


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