Risk Taking


A few months back, Abby Sunderland, a 15-year-old Californian, was plucked from the Indian Pacific after a ferocious ocean storm ended her attempted solo circumnavigation of the globe. She was following in the wake of her older brother, Zac, the first person under 18 years old to do the same thing, and 16-year-old Australian Jessica Watson, who’d successfully completed her own solo round-the-world sail in May, beating Zac’s record.

All three incidents – even the successful trips of Zac and Jessica – were criticized by many parents who just couldn’t fathom the idea that a mother and father would allow their teenage child to face such dangers. Yet there were Jessica and Abby, demonstrating before the entire world that they were perfectly capable of handling the adventure, surviving calamity, acting and speaking with all of the courage of the stoutest mariner.

The subject arose in one of the writer communities, when a 13 year old showed up seeking critique of a query letter for a YA novel she’d completed. A lively discussion ensued about whether she should mention her age in the query (I said yes, everyone else said no – so far. Can’t win ’em all). I mentioned Abby Sunderland’s journey. Big mistake.

It got me thinking, though, about the extraordinary achievement of writing a novel at the age of 13, or solo sailing around the world, or performing solo cello at the Metropolitan Opera House. Some people are just hard-wired for extraordinary undertakings. They commit, train, practice, plan, and do – all the while ignoring the tsk-tsking from the sidelines.

When I was a college student immersed in creative writing classes, I had dreams of becoming a novelist. I wasted a good deal on postage, sending out short stories. But I was not hard-wired to pursue that high-risk, low-odds adventure – and probably couldn’t bear the idea of telling my parents I wanted to go to graduate school for a MFA degree. No, my risk-taking days would wait until after law school, when I leapt into the arena of electoral politics. It wasn’t an angry, roiling, shark-infested ocean, but it was risky enough – as the subject of Diary of a Small Fish suggests!

The world needs explorers, limit breakers, people whose courage and dreams so far exceed the bounds of normalcy that they make us all dream bigger dreams. If they happen to be young, that’s all the better.


8 Responses to “Risk Taking”

  1. 1 M M Bennetts

    I’ve been reading a great deal about the boys who went to sea at 14 in Nelson’s navy, two hundred years ago. Exceptional people, all of them.

  2. 2 Sian


    I couldn’t agree more. Exceptional people should not be stopped from doing exceptional things.

  3. 3 Malc

    I concur. We have an inquisition over here, Pete, known by the misnomer ‘Health and Safety Executive’. Its mission: to lock society in a padded cell of its own design and own, authoritarian control.

    Yet how unhealthy always to avoid risk, never to feel the pulse quicken at the closeness of disastrous failure. (We’ve both regretted safe shots topped when that hooded five was oh-so-makeable in the first place, no?) And how unsafe to risk your everlasting soul with reflections on such a life. A life wasted. (Actually, I think of old age as the time for reflection, the time when finally we’re too past it to swing a carefree club and are reduced to lying about how we used to.)

  4. I agree with you Pete. I’ve noticed several teenage writers lately, that are doing quite well, I might add. The author of The DUFF, due out soon or just came out, Kody Keplinger only just turned eighteen. There’s another author, Steph Bowe that’s also a teen. It’s definitely not unheard of. I think as a parent, you prepare your kids to go forth into what you hope is greatness; you just have to have the courage to let go. 🙂
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  5. 7 Malc

    🙂 You old smoothie.

    Got to thinking how the American psyche, unlike the English, is wired for go-getting. You’ve even given us new words to salute risk-taking qualities: chutzpah, gumption.

    (In the words of the great Dubya, “the trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.”)

    On a tangent, you guys love nothing better than the little guy who gets knocked down but keeps getting up. Ain’t that so?

    • Er, heh heh, “chutzpah” is a Yiddish word, and “gumption” was British/Scots.

      As for getting up after being knocked down, I refer you to Cool Hand Luke.

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