In being asked about the last time I took a risk, I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s comment when asked about his first lie, which was:
As I understand it, what you desire is information about ‘my first lie, and how I got out of it.’ I was born in 1835; I am well along, and my memory is not as good as it was. If you had asked about my first truth it would have been easier for me and kinder of you, for I remember that fairly well. I remember it as if it were last week. The family think it was week before, but that is flattery and probably has a selfish project back of it. When a person has become seasoned by experience and has reached the age of sixty-four, which is the age of discretion, he likes a family compliment as well as ever, but he does not lose his head over it as in the old innocent days.
– Mark Twain, “My First Lie, and How I Got Out Of It”
In the same vein, I am fifty-four, and if you asked me about the last time I did something the safe way if would have been a lot easier for me. Because of my inherent clumsiness, walking and driving entail significant risks; because of social ineptitude, virtually all personal interactions end up being riskier than they probably should be.
One irony in all this is that I am an actuary by profession, and our professional logo says:
And it definitely is. Risk most certainly has presented a myriad of opportunities to make a fool of myself, one of which happened fairly recently…
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I was asked by my employer to do a presentation for a large group of sales people. I answered that I would do it gladly, because I am an optimistic kind of person about once every 7 months and they caught me on the one out of day out of 213 that I would be dumb enough to say yes. I thereafter prepared and rehearsed my feeble speech obsessively. There were to be about 3,000 people in attendance and I would need to be ready.
I approached the event with considerable trepidation (which is the minimum size trepidation comes in); entering the empty room the day before the event, I found the size of the venue to be rather daunting. They had a teleprompter set up, but I was horrible with it: since I had my speech memorized, I decided to forego it, use a portable clip-on microphone and walk around some while I spoke to make it more relaxed. They talked us each through how it would go (everyone else there speaking was either a salesperson or a public speaker by trade) and went through the order we would go in. I was to go on after the guest speaker, who turned out to be former First Lady Laura Bush. They also had several former Heisman trophy winners around, but they would be on stage much earlier.
So, that night, I went repeatedly through my speech, filming myself with the MacBook. I was up incredibly early the next morning, setting out almost immediately upon waking to walk all around the event hotel, practicing my speech the entire time. Because public speaking is so nerve-wracking, I find the ritual of walking around before a speech to be absolutely essential to me surviving the experience.
As my time grew closer, I put on my best actuary’s clothes (really nice suit with an ugly 1970’s pocket protector accessory) and headed to where I would enter back stage and perform my ritual of pacing around until my time on stage.
Except, the Secret Service were blocking the back entrance.
No problem — we adapt, we conquer — I decided to walk around the outside of the event hall. Except, now, the MIB’s were everywhere: black suits, a few with sunglasses, one hand on the earpiece, eyeing me suspiciously as I would walk by. Several of my pathways were blocked by these portable human roadblocks: eventually, I went back to the back entrance and showed the guards there my credentials and they let me enter.
So now I am backstage at this event, and I have a roughly one-by-two foot space to stand in. The energy of the four Red Bulls I had that morning (I had been up since 3:30) was coursing through my veins, but I could not move anywhere — the perimeter had been secured. The former First Lady was resplendent on stage in a cheery yellow outfit, talking with great passion about the importance of reading, a subject I agree to be of the utmost importance to every society.
Truth be told, however, the importance of personal liberty as regards freedom of movement seemed like a more pressing topic to me at the time.
Nevertheless, I stood still as a painted landscape for the next thirty-five minutes. When she finished her talk (which was a very good one, it must be said) she walked out the other side of the stage, surrounded by her security detail, and suddenly I could move: at that exact instant, I heard
And now, everyone’s favorite actuary is here to talk about a subject close to all of your hearts… Everybody please welcome [Name Redacted]!
… and I found myself headed out on stage, repeating over and over in my head my opening two sentences in the rather forlorn hope that if I remembered those, the rest would come to me.
I walked (actually ran) out to where the tape on the stage floor indicated I was to stand, and looked out at the (to me) enormous crowd. Standing in all the aisles and near all the exits were extremely vigilant suited men. There were relatively few of them, but their forbidding presence made the whole thing seem, frankly, surreal.
I took in a deep breath and delivered my opening line, which I had thought of mere moments before, while standing frozen backstage:
At the risk of being presumptuous, I… I hired a large security force to ensure nobody leaves during my speech. So remember, actuaries not only know when you’re likely to die… they might just help make it happen.
And I guess the rest of it ended up going alright.