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Unchaining the Human Heart
— A Revolutionary Manifesto
A Book by J. Neil Schulman
Chapter 9: Risky Business

So you’re probably thinking I’m going to start this chapter drawing wisdom from the 1983 movie Risky Business that launched Tom Cruise’s career as a film star. But no. The text medium can’t really do justice to the tighty-whitey air guitar dance Cruise did to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock And Roll” and as hot as Rebecca de Mornay was in that movie, she really doesn’t have much to do with what I want to write about. Except for this speech: “Sometimes you gotta say ‘What the Fuck,’ make your move. Joel, every now and then, saying ‘What the Fuck,’ brings freedom. Freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future.”

Okay, I guess I did start out with drawing wisdom from Risky Business.

But since I really wanted to start this chapter drawing wisdom from Albert Brooks’ 1991 movie Defending Your Life, maybe this chapter has the wrong title.

In Defending Your Life — on my short list of movies I can re-watch endlessly — Albert Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a risk-averse Yuppie executive. When he’s killed in a car accident, Daniel finds himself reborn into a cloned body in an afterlife realm called Judgment City. There Daniel finds himself having to defend himself in a life-review hearing, prosecuted for wasting his potential by being too timid to grab the opportunities offered him.

Now, if I ever find myself on trial on Judgment City, I think I’m going to be in Department B, where instead of reviewing all the times I was too afraid to say “What the fuck,” I’ll be looking at all the times I told self-important assholes who pissed me off to go fuck themselves. I’ll be the guy who asks the judges where they get off thinking they have the authority to sit in judgment on my life, patiently explaining to them that they’re too flat-headed even to start calculating what percentage of my brain I use, demanding to be taken directly to the office of my good buddy, God, and if they think I’m going to walk around in that stupid-looking robe they call a tupa they’ve got another thing coming.

Look. I’m not the bravest guy. As a kid I could never bring myself to dive into water. I never did, even though I later got a certificate in SCUBA diving with an underwater swim to a depth of fifty feet. I’ve never sky-dived or Bungee-jumped or hang-glided or driven race cars. I tried piloting a helicopter once; they don’t tell you that, unlike driving, you can get sick to your stomach. I’ve always avoided fights because I don’t like getting hit back. It hurts. I can talk about a handful of times in my life when I guess an objective observer might conclude I showed courage in the face of immediate danger, but I’m pretty sure I would have been useless in the invasion of Normandy.

Taking career risks has never been a problem for me. If I have any problem it may be that I’ve spent too much of my life on the edge of disaster. At various times in my life I’ve had my car repossessed, had all my credit cards go belly up, and been six months behind on paying the mortgage — all because I chose a career path as a self-employed free-lancer with no safety net, no unemployment insurance, no Plan B, nothing “to fall back on.” I know what it’s like to go for broke and end up broke. I know what it’s like to be “all in” and lose the pot — not literally on a gaming table, but with equivalent stakes in the Game of Life. My financial life has been a roller-coaster that makes anything at Magic Mountain look like the Tea Cups at Disneyland.

But even as I sit here writing this — wondering where I’ll find the money to make the health insurance payments this month — I wouldn’t have missed this ride for anything.

I have friends who took what they thought was the sensible and safe path — college, graduate school, working their way up the corporate ladder — only to find themselves unemployed and in debt for years, in a situation not all that different from mine.

I invested half a million dollars of my family’s money in producing and directing an independent film from my own script. After the housing market collapsed, eating our equity, this investment ended up being all the savings we would have had left. The movie hasn’t yet begun to start recouping that investment. Yet, I lost almost as much in what was considered the safe policy of putting money into primary home equity … and lots of people lost far more money for good by trusting Bernard Madoff.

I may yet sell my movie and get the money back.

Nor have I lived my life as one of those people who have been afraid to fall in love. I’ve fallen in love with several women, and married one of them.

Fear of heights is not one of my problems, and not only am I not afraid of public speaking, I get off on being in front of an audience. I used to think I was afraid of roller coasters until I realized that it wasn’t fear. I just don’t enjoy being body slammed by swift gravitational changes. You put me on a roller coaster I’d better be in earth orbit at the end of it or it’s not worth it for me.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with safety and security. People’s fears often have no relationship with the actuarial risks. I know for a fact, from years of research, that the widespread availability of privately owned and carried firearms decreases the risk of gun massacres; yet, as I write this, the “gun-free-zone” on a college campus — and incredibly even on the army base — is still the irrational, fear-based response to repeated cases where one madman with a gun can murder dozens and wound many more disarmed victims. Often in life fear makes victims and courage makes survivors.

Our society has institutionalized fear.

Many well-meaning parents advise their children not to pursue risky professions — like the arts — without having something sensible “to fall back on,” never realizing that the rigors of pursuing any risky profession almost guarantees that something to fall back on acts to undercut the courage needed to persevere and prevail. If you have something to fall back on … you’ll fall back.

Casino gambling is denigrated as a vice, even while hypocritical statists advertise Lotto tickets on bus ads and the evening local news. Nobody admits the truth that betting on a poker hand is just as much an investment as putting money down on a stock pick.

It’s only the skills you master that can reduce the risks.

TV commercials advertising cars driven in dynamic action advise viewers that they’re watching professional drivers on closed courses. The automakers are forbidden to notify their customers that it’s the dangers of speeding over interesting roads which is the only thing making these boxes on wheels look sexy.

The safe path is the one always sold by the establishment: stay in school, get a good job. Never mind that learning on your own through reading and life experience — never regarding anyone else as your boss — may be the surest formula to come up with something great that the human race never had before.

As I quoted President Kennedy in my last chapter, “We are all mortal.” Our days are the total capital we are loaned to invest, and sooner or later the banker calls in the loan. The only real risk is the possibility that we can waste our lives never using our life and liberty to pursue happiness.

Violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, in his master classes on TV, can be heard telling his students hesitating to strike out with originality, “Take a chance.”

The only truth about taking risks in life is summed up in the cliché: if you don’t bet, you’ll never win.


Next in Unchaining the Human Heart — A Revolutionary Manifesto is Chapter X: High Times

Unchaining the Human Heart — A Revolutionary Manifesto is
Copyright © 2010 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust. All rights reserved.

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