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The Minimalists

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus write about living a meaningful life with less stuff for 4 million readers. As featured on: ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, TODAY, NPR, TIME, Forbes, The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and National Post. They live in Missoula, Montana.

The Worst Thing That Could Happen

Risk scares the crap out of people. Many of us associate risk with failure, failure with pain. Yet we’re told we must take plenty of risks to succeed. Thus, success must be painful, right?

Not necessarily.

When it comes to challenging our preconceived notions about risk, the common platitudinal question tossed around by kindhearted friends and self-help gurus is, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Truth be told, some risks are fairly benign: letting go of most of your material possessions, asking a cute guy or girl for his or her phone number, writing the first page of the book you’ve always wanted to write. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Likely, nothing at all. There is no real risk in these harmless endeavors.

Other risks, however, probably should scare the shit out of you: skydiving, purchasing a home, quitting your job. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Some pretty awful shit, actually: death, debt, and poverty, respectively. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take these risks, it means you should approach each risk with logic, reason, and intuition. Peer over the edge before taking your proverbial leap, and if it makes sense, then leap—because not leaping can be a much bigger risk.

The difference, then, between the benign risks and the real risks, is that the latter possesses potentially life-altering worst-case consequences, while the former poses virtually no threat at all.

When you think about it, though, the benign risks can also hold life-altering consequences if you change the question: What is the best—not the worst, but the best—thing that could happen? Perhaps getting rid of your excess stuff will free up time, money, space, and give you much-needed peace of mind. Perhaps that phone number will lead to a fulfilling relationship. Perhaps writing that first page will lead to a second, and then a third, and so on until you’re staring at a bestseller. Any of these outcomes would likely change your life for the better.

Similarly, the real risks can have tremendous upsides. Jumping from a plane could be the most exhilarating experience of your life, the first time you’ve truly felt alive. A new home might be ideal for your family, a place in which you enjoy meaningful experiences, an investment. Walking away from your career could be the catalyst toward starting your own business, or a life of growth and contribution (it was both for us).

That doesn’t mean you should undertake any of these risks, either—it just means we must ask these two questions more frequently. After all, what’s the worst or best thing that could happen if we did?

Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.