I believe that smart risk-taking should be a learned skill. Danger-seeking may come naturally, early on in life, but it needs to be properly learned, in order to be survivable. History is full of examples of people who either could not or would not learn how to survive their own need for stimulation. Fighter pilots, rock climbers, base jumpers, extreme skiers, stuntmen… and more.
I’ve teetered on the edge myself, and there have been a number of times I came close to being harmed, but miraculously managed to elude disaster. Sometimes it was dumb luck that I got out in one piece, while other times it was the learning from my past experiences that I had to thank for my continued existence.
I have always been an assertive, even aggressive, individual, and as a young kid, I had a tendency to engage strangers in conversation and provoke them. I relished the experience of challenging someone to a duel of wits or interacting with people who (I thought) were up to no good. I was a bit of a crusader, when I was a kid, and I had all the best of intentions. The problem was, I usually lacked the ability to successfully negotiate the entire social transaction, and there were a lot of arguments I started but couldn’t finish — or that ended in me being attacked or threatened in some way. Many of them I managed to get out of… barely.
When I was about nine years old, while walking to school, a (female) schoolmate and I were once chased by young (high-school aged) men who drove by in a car. I yelled out to them and baited them, itching for a fight (okay, I wasn’t the brightest kid at times, clearly), and when they pulled the car over and started coming after my schoolmate and me, we were barely able to elude them by hiding in the underbrush. I endangered both myself and my schoolmate, who could have been seriously injured (including raped), as a result of my brash behavior. We both escaped, but I believe the girl’s mother refused to let her walk to school with me, after that. I still feel terrible about the role I played in that scenario.
Throughout my grade school years, I had numerous run-ins with other kids who were bigger and stronger and angrier than I, running my big mouth and pushing limits of our social dynamics, till they struck out at me. On several occasions, my provocation was enough to get me physically attacked, or ganged up on and bullied for an entire year of school. The summer after 6th grade, I chose the wrong kid to take on — they were a year ahead of me in school and they had a lot of friends who were as angry and as aggressive as they — and I spent my whole 7th grade year hiding from this gang with a long and vengeful memory. I didn’t get beaten up, but part of me wishes I had, so they could have gotten their aggression out of their systems. That bullying seriously impeded my social progress for years to come. If I’d only kept my mouth shut, that hot summer day in 1977.
- At Risk: Personal safety
- Dangers: Interpersonal strife, Attack/assault
- Rewards: Heightened sense of self, thrills, sense of adventure
- Outcome(s): Quarrels and altercations, social “near misses”, Narrow escape from possible assault
A few years later, as a rebellious teenager, I was also a trouble-maker who drank and smoked and challenged authority for no better reason other than to do it. I sold drugs out of my high school locker, I bought and sold liquor out of the trunks of cars, and I brazenly tucked my pack of cigarettes in the sleeve pocket of my winter coat, not caring who saw — even my coaches and teachers. I sneaked beer into school, in my gym bag and drank it in the bathroom before first period. I drank — and drove drunk — on back roads, and I ran with a pretty rough crowd of drug dealers, thieves, and felons-to-be. I was never in trouble with the law, however, and I eluded detection for the most part. The times when I was detected by authorities, I got off with a warning. I’m frankly amazed, at times, that I didn’t end up in juvie hall, for all the crap I pulled off. I think the fact that my parents were respectable, church-going members of their segment of society got me off the hook, and a lot of adults around me weren’t looking at me very closely, because — as a “brain” — they were more concerned with my oddly substandard grades than my social/behavior problems, and they didn’t want me to have a record. But if someone had just looked a little more closely, they would have found a lot of misdemeanors and actual felonies I was committing without so much as a moment of hesitation.
- At Risk: Social standing, reputation, relationship with authority figures, health, well-being, future prospects, academic performance, personal and interpersonal maturation
- Dangers: Trouble with authorities, worsening reputation, legal action (arrest), physical harm from dangerous associates
- Rewards: Thrills, sense of adventure, financial reward, social reward (from socially marginal associates and “customers”), relief from social pressure to conform, defiant independence, self-assertion
- Outcome(s): Drinking problems, reduced academic performance, social alienation, health problems, poor relations with authority figures
When I was a junior in college, I went to Europe for a semester abroad. I purchased a one-way ticket to Switzerland and borrowed $1,000 from a family member, not having any idea how I was going to make ends meet in Europe… or even pay for my way home. While overseas in the European Union (where non-EU residents are effectively barred from ‘taking jobs from Europeans’), I managed to land a job working for an American expatriate, and although I was really struggling with getting along there, I stayed on and turned a semester into a multi-year stay. I never managed to complete my college degree, but I got an unparalleled education in living an independent life.
- At Risk: Personal safety, future professional prospects
- Dangers: Personal harm, financial difficulties
- Rewards: Sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, improved professional outlook, lots of great stories, good life experience
- Outcome(s): Several years overseas, unique take on life thanks to my time abroad
These are just a few examples of how I’ve courted danger, socially, throughout my childhood and young adulthood. There were a lot more instances than that, but the bottom line is, I have a lifelong history of taking social risks.
I also took physical risks, when I was younger. As a teenager, I was a tree climber, and I often climbed well above where it was safe to go. I well remember the sensation of climbing 50 feet up, into the uppermost branches, which sagged and swayed beneath me, creaking and threatening to break beneath me. I persisted in climbing higher, even when my heart was in my throat and my pulse was pounding and my head knew it was not safe to go any further up. I only fell once; after that, I stopped climbing trees. Lesson learned.
- At Risk: Physical safety and well-being
- Dangers: Falling from great heights, being injured while alone in the woods
- Rewards: Sense of adventure, ability to remove myself from the rest of the world, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem
- Outcome(s): Solitude and solace, minor injury
Interestingly, at the same time that I was acting out with drugs and alcohol and challenging authority as a teenager, I was also a medal-winning athlete who was a team captain on several sports, and I lettered each season in my chosen area. In my quest for excellence, I routinely pushed the limits of my physical endurance and really punished my body, driving it relentlessly beyond its capabilities. I played injured, time and again, and even when I got hit hard and was slow getting up — in retrospect, I now understand that I sustained multiple concussions throughout my high school sports activities — I was back in the game, keeping on keeping on. All that mattered, was the game.
- At Risk: Health and safety, physical well-begin
- Dangers: Injuries, concussions, mild TBI
- Rewards: Social approval, team membership, medals and ribbons, heightened social status, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem
- Outcome(s): Longstanding health concerns due to injuries, acquired tendency to ignore warning messages from my injured body and “play injured” in other aspects of life
When I was sixteen, while traveling with my family across the country, after a whole day in the car, I got out and literally sat on the edge of the Grand Canyon, with nothing other than my sense of balance keeping me from plunging hundreds of yards down to a rocky death. After being in that close space with all my siblings, rolling across the countryside with no break, no respite, no escape from the noise and din of my family, I was so out of it, so stir-crazy, so aching for a little fresh air, I actually literally sat on the edge of an abyss. I didn’t even realize what I was doing, until a little while had passed, my head had cleared, and I’d gotten enough of an adrenaline “pump” to realize where I was. It really made no sense for me to do that — I am mortally afraid of heights, including precipitous drops to a canyon floor hundreds of yards below. But I needed that little while, perched on the verge of my own destruction, to bring me back to my senses. Once I had them back, and I realized where I was, I got up very slowly, I can tell you.
- At Risk: Physical safety
- Dangers: Plunging to my death in the Grand Canyon
- Rewards: Relief from being cooped up in a loud vehicle, getting away from everyone (who didn’t dare come near the edge)
- Outcome(s): Cleared my head… but also realized I was perched on the brink of an abyss
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