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December 31, 2012

FINANCE COLUMN: Risk-takers draw on guts, values

In a serious multitasking moment, I am reading "Beautiful Outlaw," a fascinating take on the personality of Jesus by John Eldredge, and flipping back to "Bruce," an all-encompassing biography of Bruce Springsteen by Peter Carlin.

At the same time I am watching a documentary on the History Channel about the American Revolution and listening to a concert devoted to Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary in the music business.

Jesus, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Springsteen and Dylan have one common thread: The existing structure wasn’t working for them, so they took major risks to make things better.

The New Year is a time when people think about changes. Gyms and diet classes flood with people who want to lose weight. People with addictions think about getting help. My phone rings with people who want to start saving money or cut up their credit cards.

Those are tweaks and minor changes. Then you get people going through major life decisions. January is a popular month for people to file for divorce, just as Christmas is a popular time to propose marriage. A lot of people start looking for new careers and jobs in January.

It takes courage to do something out of the norm. It is also the way great things happen.  

Although I am the son of a professional gambler and a lifetime, self-employed entrepreneur, I preach a gospel of being risk averse when it comes to money. I want people to be secure and have a safety net before they roll the dice on an investment.  

I also understand, from decades of watching lottery winners and injured people blow through their money, that few lose their money because of bad personal investment decisions. Most waste it on bad behaviors, people wanting handouts and turning their money over blindly to “advisers” who don’t have a clue what they are doing.

They also lose money because they don’t have a sense of self and a sense of purpose.

In order to be a risk taker, you have to understand what the risk is about.

Before Eldredge’s book, I never really thought of Jesus being a rebel. Since I came up through traditional Christian churches with traditional hierarchies, I put Jesus in the same traditional category.

But he was as much a rebel as are Dylan and Springsteen. He challenged authority, went against conventional wisdom and stuck true to his ideology, even when the penalty was death on a cross. He was a lot like all those people who signed the Declaration of Independence.

I often wonder what it took to get a group of reasonably comfortable landowners to risk certain death in order to break away from the British and start a new country.

There is that point when someone’s values - or as Maslow would say, self-actualization - allows one to overcome all fears.

Most of us will tolerate intolerable situations as the fear of the unknown keeps us from moving forward. It’s how totalitarian governments and nasty individuals have stayed in power throughout world history. No one had the guts to go up against them.

I’ve read almost everything ever written about Springsteen, but Carlin’s book focused on a period when he made a faithful decision. Rebelling against the hype that the record company cranked out for the "Born to Run" album, Springsteen refused to play big arenas or anything that would compromise the integrity of his message and music.

He did it at a time when he was dead broke. Most musicians would have sold out and no one would have blamed them. He took a big risk, and consequently he is the only artist from that era who is as popular now as he was 35 years ago.

It’s not about taking a risk; it's about staying true to your values.

A lot of people are contemplating major life decisions. They are looking at intolerable relationships, jobs they hate, uncertain futures and fear of the unknown.

An insurance company commercial used to say that the biggest risk is not taking one.  

The bigger question is not whether you are going to take a risk, but whether your values and beliefs are so overwhelming that risk is the only option.

If you do take a personal or professional risk, note that with Jesus, Springsteen, Dylan and the people who founded the United States, you are in pretty good company. They didn’t set out to make history; they did by staying true to what they believed.

History was a byproduct of true passion and values.

---

Don McNay is a columnist for The Richmond (Ky.) Register. Contact him at don@mcnay.com.

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