The story of America's greatest idea: risk.

The story of America's greatest idea.
April 19 2010 7:15 AM


The story of America's greatest idea.

Risk has taken a beating recently, thanks to the financial crisis. Risk is supposed to be about choice and consequence. You take a chance and you win or you lose. But then banks and insurance companies found ways to pervert this. They devised ever more esoteric ways to pass risk on to others, so there was, in fact, no risk to them at all. In this distortion, insurance techniques, created to limit risk, exposed millions to it. The laws of probability, originally devised to solve a moral dilemma—how to equitably distribute winnings in a game of chance—wound up inequitably distributing losses to people who didn't even know they were at the table. The architects of these gambles left their jobs with enormous bonuses, and companies that helped cripple the financial system were repaid by the government bailout. They took a chance, and lost—but they still won.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In this series, I seek to reclaim risk. I want to remind myself—and you—of the buoyant, thrilling side of risk, and I will do it by telling the stories of people who embrace risk and who live with the fear, exhilaration, and ambiguity it creates without shirking. People engaged in every kind of human endeavor say that taking risks is the key to fulfillment and success. It is at the heart of our biggest thrills and proudest achievements. Ask someone when she felt most alive and she'll tell you a story about a risk she took. President Barack Obama talked about this in his inaugural address. "Greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things."


This series presents the stories of those people. None of my four subjects is in the financial markets. Each represents a particular kind of risk-taker. Mountain climbers Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt take mind-bending risks with their bodies but perceive that physical risk totally differently than those who lack their skill. The musicians in the band Girlyman balance their profound need to take creative risks with their obligation to please their fans. In Silicon Valley—home to an earlier economic collapse—the founders of the Web start-up Red Beacon are gambling their own fortunes and careers, and yet at every step they seek to minimize risk. Four-star Marine Gen. James Mattis commands soldiers and Marines to take personal risks to protect the lives of others, perhaps the most challenging endeavor of all.

These risk-takers are alike in one critical way: They are fully alive. For them, risk-taking leads not to a loss of control, but to the opposite. It is the animating and organizing principle that drives every day. As I came to realize, risk-taking is not just about a single big leap. It requires not just momentary bravery, but sustained courage to endure uncertainty and the sometimes lonely experience of living off your imagination and off an idea that may not succeed. "Creativity and discovery necessarily involve risk so there will be dark days for you," said Alan Heeger after winning the Nobel Prize in physics, "but dealing with that risk is a part of the thrill and satisfaction." Risk-taking as nourishment for the soul might sound like a New Age idea, but it is a fundamental American principle, with us since the nation's earliest days. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "Those living in the instability of a democracy have the constant image of chance before them, and in the end, they come to like all those projects in which chance plays a part … not only because of the promise of profit but because they like the emotions evoked."

The subjects of my four stories list exotic occupations on their tax forms—general, entrepreneur, rock climber, musician. But early in my reporting it became obvious to me that everyone—yes, accountants, and lawyers, and dentists—has a story about risk to tell. That's where you come in. I would like to hear stories of the leap you took, the "emotions evoked" in you, and how taking that risk changed your life for better or for worse. I'll collect what you've sent and write about it. You can send your stories to me at or post them in the Comments section below. In the spirit of disclosure and as a way to kick off the discussion, I've posted a story below of a leap I took. Join me in taking the small risk of posting yours!

My story:

In 2005, I left Time magazine, where I had worked for 15 years. I was its White House correspondent, a job that people instantly got excited about when they, say, met me at a wedding. In my job I traveled with the president and interviewed him and knew the most "important people in the world." I left that high-profile work, and many friends, to join Slate. People thought I was nuts. A lot of them assumed I'd been fired. Suddenly I had to explain at weddings: Slate? Is that a construction magazine?  


I took the leap because I needed to upend my world to find my truer voice as a writer. I wanted to experiment, to sometimes fail, and to learn in a place that thrived on that cycle. Maybe if things worked out I'd be able to find a project of the kind that had brought me to journalism in the first place almost 20 years ago: I'd get an idea, go find stories that explored it, and get to tell those stories to readers. I got lucky. This series is one of my rewards.

Read the all the entries in this series, on  rock climbers Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt, entrepreneurs Redbeacon, the band Girlyman,  and Marine Gen. James Mattis.

Become a fan of  Slate and  John Dickerson on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.


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