On the Art of Not Living a Careful Life

I started off the year by writing about measuring sticks. The metaphorical kind, not actual tape measures (although I’ve written plenty about those too.) And while I used bodies and physical aesthetics as an example, that is really just one of many ways Other People’s Measuring Sticks™ show up in our lives. 

The way people portray perfect lives on social media is another. Or the way we place value on money, and job titles, and social status. (And I suppose in this day and age we should add “likes” and “followers” to that list.) 

Also, while I don’t (and won’t) have kids, don’t get me started on the measuring sticks we create for mothers. I can’t even with that shit. 

Some days (maybe on my worst days) I think that all we’ve managed to accomplish with the stories we tell is creating a neverending string of no-win-scenarios… both for ourselves and for each other. Because the vast majority of the stories we tell are curated to show something that isn’t authentic. And the vast majority of messaging in our lives is targeted to make us feel just a little bit bad about ourselves, so we’ll spend just a little bit of money trying to feel better about it. 

Those measuring sticks are not always easy to identify as not being our own, and so many of them are based in fear. 

That desire to portray a “perfect” life on social media is so very often motivated by the fear of people seeing that our lives are not, in fact, perfect. And so many of the things we’re conditioned to buy are sold through fear-based marketing. (I could spend thousands of words just giving examples products that are sold this way– anti-aging products, cars, fashion, the type of coffee or alcohol you drink, and, yes, a shit-load of products in the DIY/home design industry–all telling stories about how we’re “not enough”.) 

And the most irritating thing is that that shit works for a reason. 

For many of us, our most basic needs– food, water, shelter, safety– are already met, and so the easiest way to “trap” us is to create fear-based scenarios that, in turn, motivate us to make fear-based decisions. (Fear-based decisions are great for survival– also great for reactively spending money– but, if we’re being honest? Generally not great for kicking ass.) 

The art of not being careful is simple: Lean in to that shit. 

Lean in to fear, and discomfort, and consequences. But (if I haven’t said this enough yet) when you’re weighing the consequences of things you may or may not do in your life… make sure you’re using the right measuring stick. 

I was raised to have profound (and deeply ingrained) respect for the consequences of my actions. (i.e. You better really fucking think about that thing you’re about to do, because you’re the only one who is going to be paying the price for whatever comes of it.) And, that belief can very easily translate into a whole list of things not to do. Maybe even manifest as decision paralysis. 

But, there’s a flip side to that story. Which is that you better really fucking think about that thing you’re NOT doing, because you’re the only one who is going to be paying the price for that too.

I very often think more about the price of not doing things. The actual price of being careful. Yes, I am a nearly-forty-year-old woman who builds a lot of shit while drinking and not wearing proper PPE, and I do know the price I might pay for it. (I could lose a finger… or an eye. That shit does happen.) But the consequences of not doing it are so much greater (according to my own measuring sticks)… I could be living a mediocre life, perpetually in fear of what could go wrong, and wasting a lot of my precious time waiting for other people to do things for me instead of figuring out how to do them myself.

Let me be clear… there is absolutely nothing wrong with living a safe and careful life because you know what’s important to you. Because you’re secure in your own measuring sticks. 

But it feels like a specific kind of tragedy to live a safe and careful life on accident. Because we don’t have much cultural precedent for living a different way. We don’t tell stories about the price of safe and careful. And we’re very much conditioned to view “life” in terms of quantity, and not quality. 

When I say Kick Ass or Die, it’s not a metaphor. One of the best quotes I’ve read in the last year came from this book: Adventure calls to those who care more for living than for their lives. 

For me, sometimes that means drinking beer and building shit. Sometimes it means taking on incredibly large and complicated projects in my professional life. And sometimes it means climbing mountains in my spare time. (Or, if not actual mountains, then packing up a bag and heading out, by myself, into the kind of wilderness that–if I haven’t planned appropriately, and don’t make good decisions– may very well kill me.) 

In essence, I have to kick ass, or literally die. And when faced with that decision, the honest-to-god truth is that I am more interested in living (and living a full, adventurous life) than just being alive. 

I don’t expect people to understand that (especially the people who love me most in the world) but I still think it’s an important story to tell. Some people choose quality over quantity. Some people choose risk over safety. 

And, it is (almost by definition) not easy. Even I occasionally think I’d be a “better” person if I was more careful, or took the opinions of my loved ones in to account more. (I mean… I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much awesome and energizing shit, but, also, it would certainly be easier on the hearts of the people who love me most in the world if I cared a little more for life than for actually living.)  

But… that’s not my measuring stick. 

At least, not right now. 

The beauty of having your own measuring sticks is that you don’t have to just pick one and stick with it for all of time. What’s right for me right now will definitely change in the future. (I know that because I have eighteen years of my life documented on this very website, and that shit has changed a lot over the decades.) 

But right now, in this moment, it’s important for me to tell this story. The one that isn’t often told. That it’s okay to choose a life that isn’t careful, as long as it’s awesome (according to your measuring sticks.)  

This story isn’t right for everyone, but… it is everything for some of us.

8 Responses

  1. Thank you for such an honest post. I grapple with these things daily. I also have no children, never married and have my own business … perhaps because of that I have allowed myself to be less careful, I still have no cell phone and travel in the woods alone but there are people whom I support and employ who depend on me so I have curtailed my abandon somewhat to be able to provide employment for others but the burden of that is now too heavy for me to lift at 66 years of age. I have lived on the fringes and tried to live more in the moment while also weighing moral obligations heavier than just fitting in. I am struggling with finding the balance between my responsibilities and my freedom.

    1. The ongoing struggle for balance is definitely a thing. Probably for everyone, but how it shows up is different based on our desires (I know a lot of people who just don’t crave the whole freedom/adventure thing, which is totally fine!) But we don’t talk enough about that burden/cost as it relates to our personal desires. And also freedom/adventure/not being careful is so often written of as a mid-life crisis or a phase… OR in opposition to responsibility. But I think it’s just the opposite. As far as we know, we get one shot at this life… it’s more irresponsible to ourselves to not live it fully.

      Wishing you the best on your journey to finding the balance that is right for you!

  2. “…the vast majority of messaging in our lives is targeted to make us feel just a little bit bad about ourselves, so we’ll spend just a little bit of money trying to feel better about it. ”

    Damn. You nailed it.

  3. I would like to give you props for your comment about not having kids and still understanding the ridiculous measuring sticks we have for mothers. For a long time I didn’t want kids . . . until I did, and now I have an awesome little dude. Being around that childfree community – there’s a lot of animosity going in both directions for the choices of others. So it was refreshing to see someone understand a point of view that’s not their own without judgement. Also, if you haven’t read anything by Thich Nhat Hanh, I have found him to be incredibly insightful about living life to live, and not letting fear guide you.

  4. Love this post. In my work life at a makerspace lab and wood shop, I often struggled to understand “safety first” mindsets. “Safety first” starts from a place of constraints and creates barriers. I don’t want students to look at a 4×8 CNC or a laser engraver and think first about how to be safe with this technology. I want them to imagine what’s possible. I want them to geek out and and get real close and squint at the future. So now our mantra is “Curiosity first.” Because asking questions is risky business. So first, be brave and daring and curious. First, take risks.

  5. Thank you for this, I needed to read this today. I had a baby late in life after thinking I would not be a parent (side note: love it when people who don’t want to be parents – for any reason – normalize that for others). It was a traumatic birth that has resulted in PTSD and a massive increase in anxiety around safety. My internal measuring sticks around safety and risk are essentially no longer trustworthy and I’m doing the hard work to recalibrate them.

    Talking it over with my partner this week I said “I don’t want to look back and realize anxiety kept me from enjoying my baby.” I would argue I don’t want that out of life either.

    I’m re-learning what I need in place regarding safety to take risks that have value to me. While my risk-taking activities have changed because there’s a tiny human, I don’t want him to grow up afraid of meaningful risks that enrich his life.

  6. This is so heartwarming, I really think you are a genuine person, thank you for sharing this with the world. I wish that I met you in person to express my feelings. thank you for being in the same era as me.

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I'm not interested in a mediocre life. I'm here to kick ass or die.

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