If You’re Young, Do Harder, Riskier Things

I get a lot of email. Most is encouraging, but now and then I get an email from a reader irate that one of my articles didn’t speak to them personally, so they write me a scathing critique.

A common template goes something like, “You think it’s easy to do _____. Just wait until you have kids, tons of debt and a mortgage bub.” The idea being that I’m somehow at fault for not giving them personalized advice because they had made poor life decisions.

But it does bring up a good point: if you’re young, it is easier to do harder and riskier things. If you’re smart, you take advantage of that.

Being Young and Taking Risks

When I say risks, I’m talking about the long-shot, high-reward, low-cost kind: starting a business, living in a different country or building something interesting.

Of course, you don’t need to be young to do any of these things. On the contrary, risky, difficult things would seem more feasible as you gain more experience and resources.

But the more you have, the harder it is to justify giving it up. There’s a lower opportunity cost to invest hundreds of hours in a speculative project when you’re earning $10 per hour than $100. Spending a year living abroad is harder if you need to convince a spouse or kids to come along for the ride.

You don’t need to be young to take on difficult, risky things. I know people twice my age who are more adventurous than I am. But the life trajectory people take usually makes it harder to do.

Fail When It’s Easy To Fail

I started thinking through this idea when I was contemplating starting my MIT Challenge. On the one hand, my business was becoming more consistent. One year’s worth of work improving my courses and distribution would have been tens of thousands of dollars in extra income.

Instead I chose to spend a year doing something I thought was interesting and had a possibility of sharing the passion I have for learning and self-education with a larger audience.

The benefits aren’t purely emotional. If the challenge were to be successful, it could help build better credibility for my methods and attract new customers. Even if I were being strictly motivated by money, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea, just a riskier one.

I could take on this project because I could afford to fail at it. My lifestyle is still inexpensive, so even if I didn’t have my business, a year’s worth of bills would have been less than a year in a university. I had no outstanding commitments and no dependents.

Taking on risks isn’t just about being bold, it’s about being able to handle the possibility of failure. If you can’t afford to fail, you can’t afford to try, so fail while failing is still cheap.

  • Derek

    This is something I’ve struggled with when writing [diet/fitness] advice. Am I giving good advice, or is it just so much easier for me because I have more freedom than most?

    “Somehow I’m at fault … because they had made poor life decisions” sums it up so well.

    People make excuses. It’s easier to pity yourself than make a radical effort for change.

  • Wally

    I like the article and I agree with all but one thing, you make it sound as if having kids and a mortgage are poor life decisions. Now you are entitled to your beliefs I am pretty sure that any financial advisor would say that a mortgage is a great decision because you are purchasing property and the money you sink in will be returned unlike rent.

    As for kids well I won’t say it is a good or bad decision because for some it is the most rewarding thing in life and others….not. But I am sure if you ask the kids they would say they are glad that their parents had them 🙂

  • Mandi @ Life…Your Way

    Honestly, I think it’s a bit of a cop out to blame your unwillingness to take risks on your children/family/lifestyle. In my opinion, some people are unwilling to take risks and those things are convenient excuses not to. But the risk-taking you advocate is beneficial no matter what stage of life you’re at. You shouldn’t be reckless, of course. But there’s no reason you can’t take a risk – even a big one — just because you have kids!

    And if your mortgage or debt is stopping you from taking risks, then something needs to change, but you can still take risks when you have debt and a mortgage…it just might mean added stress and sacrifice for a while.

  • Karenee

    Even those who consider themselves limited by circumstances could often benefit from changing their value markers to incorporate risk in pursuit of new value in life. Sometimes–financial security/fine house/climb the corporate ladder/don’t make waves–goals we cling to become blinders that prevent us from seeing opportunity.

    What we pursue isn’t always a path toward what we desire, we just haven’t thought things through enough to realize it. It is worth the effort of persuading the family (for example) to join in an adventure that would mean changing lifestyle, just because the process and the potential growth and rewards are more compelling that the rut that previously obscured the view.

  • Jan

    I am young and am hunting for my first full time job. I have so much time and no commitments at all. I live in a different country and I want to do a lot more. I did my masters in computer engineering but feel like I know nothing in the field I mastered in. I feel all these years of cramming books after books were a complete waste. I want to actually learn things and understand for my own knowledge. I am so really inspired by your blog posts and your attitude towards achieving things for urself and not for a stupid degree, that I went and saw the OCW. I also started doing the course at a slow pace. But I don’t know how much should I take at a time coz I don’t want to bite more than I can chew. How many courses should one take per semester ideally as a beginner in the OCW computer engineering undergrad course. Any help would be appreciated.

  • Josh

    I completely agree with this post and your last one. I try to live by the mantra, “Always test your limits, because then you’ll discover how few you actually have.” It’s not a famous quote, but it is a phrase I came up with to describe how I approach challenges and life in general.

    In my opinion, one of the most courageous things anyone can do is approach a new risk, new challenge, or new project with doubt and worry and simply do it. Planning is fine, but I find that most of the plan will be irrelevant after I get moving.

  • A visitor

    You can make a living with your web site alone ? Are your books and classes sales the only income? You must have a huge amount of visitors I suppose… I’m happy for you, but I don’t know how this can be possible, especially that I guess you always have to get in new products to keep your sales up…I’m puzzled how this is done, but apparently it’s working fine for you 🙂

  • Bornagainscholar

    I appreciate your article but I think it is rude to make judgments about your readers. I am not one of those you were speaking of so I am not defending myself personally (although I have made many poor life decisions as EVERYONE does, its part of life). I honestly believe (or would like to) you have way more class and personal values than to ridicule other people publicly. Try to have empathy, look at where they might be speaking from. Maybe they are in a tough spot and are impacted by fear of, well anything really… They are obviously searching for help/relief of their pain and that fear can make people very emotional. You are in a spot where you can serve them but writing things like you did in this article you are only hurting them. Just a thought.

  • Brandon

    Great article, ignore the women haters. Every guy knows once you get married your life and freedom change.

  • Ethan

    He only criticised one reader in response to an equally critical response he had received. Judging from his “common template” (and assuming it’s accurate), the reader’s purpose for writing it seemed not for advice but more as an attack. His judgement may still be unjustified but hardly unprovoked.

    Interesting post. I agree that if your answer to the question “What have I got to lose?” is “Not much”, it’s worth taking risks with high rewards.

  • Alex

    I love your viewpoint on youth and risk taking. I’m 31 at the moment but when I was in my 20’s, I did a lot of risky things: I lived in another country, studied overseas, started multiple businesses that failed and succeeded, and even changed careers twice.

    Now that I’ve entered my 30’s, I still take risks but from a more calculated stance. I don’t have children nor am I married yet, but the decisions I make are geared towards enjoying my career in medical research. I’m very clear about what I want to accomplish.

    Unlike in the past, I much more careful with how I approach my life. When I was younger I threw things together half-hazardously in order to see what worked. Now I spend more time asking for help from the right mentors, investing in “hard thinking”, and measuring progress on a daily basis. I’m more open to experimental living but in a way that enables me to produce steady positive feedback.

    When I was younger I didn’t care about results just as long as I was “doing something”. I did a lot of things just for the excitement and to test my abilities. It was fun most of the time but sometimes it was depressing when I failed. I don’t regret anything though.

    If it wasn’t for my past, I wouldn’t have the audacity to pursue my research oriented goals in 2012. Age shouldn’t be a barrier to goal achievement if the goal is the right one. As long as a person takes small calculated steps and focuses on small daily/monthly goals – without focusing on ultimate end goal – they’ll be fine.

  • usexpat

    I think if someone really, REALLY wants something they’ll figure out a way. There are no excuses. I love music and always wanted to play in a band. I have 3 kids and my husband works probably close to 80hr/weeks sometimes (and I have a job as well). So what did I do? Signed my kids up for music lessons. 10 years later 2 of them play with me and the third is happy to listen and hang out. I wanted it badly enough to wait for it.

    Also, I don’t read blogs to find someone with all the answers. Everyone is unique. I’m looking for different ways of thinking and perhaps some ideas I haven’t thought of before. That’s all. My life comes down to my choices, not what some blog says.

  • Marvin

    A few quick things, in regards to your remarks, bornagainscolar, if you dont like his opinions and how he expresses them and you don’t like the blog, why are you reading it? Save your negativity for twitter. I’m with Mandy, Alex and Usexpat. If you really want to get something done,a wife and kids wont stop you. Harland Sanders started KFC when he was like 60, his wife disagreed with him to even pursue it. I bet she feels foolish now. “Empty pockets never held anyone back, only empty heads and empty hearts.” -Norman Peale.

    (For more interesting quotes and ideas similar to what Scotts, check out http://www.arinanikitina.com/….

  • Scott Young


    My point, if you didn’t get my sarcasm, was that I hate getting angry emails from readers who are upset that an article I wrote doesn’t apply to them perfectly.

    Of course I empathize with people in bad situations, not everyone has the luxuries and privileges I’ve been given. But I also hate that I have to tone down my advice to the 90% of my audience to which it applies because someone might get offended that it doesn’t apply to them.


  • Ryan – Vice President of Aweso

    You can have excuses or you can have success but you can’t have both.

    I heard that a long time ago when I was handing out excuses like a shopping mall pretzel place giving free samples.

    Now I have a mortgage, kids, a wife and a full workload and I’m taking risks…big ones.

    There are a ton of comments that say it very nicely, people will or they won’t, what or who they blame is inconsequential.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Jonathan

    Could be re-evaluated as “If you have less to lose, do harder, riskier things”
    The family man you spoke of have more to lose due to dependents. Young is only correlated with poor. A move with the same gain and smaller risk is better than one with a larger risk. This principle makes it more broadly applicable and is less arbitrary.

  • skye

    Its pretty much unfair to blame the lack of risk taking on your commitments and obligations (family,work and etc) when different individuals have different levels of risk taking they are comfortable with.

    And its even much more strange when the low risk takers keep telling the younger generation to take more risk as though we are suppose to compensate for their lack of adventure.-_-

  • Sunshine Conkey

    I am almost 48 years old and I have 7 kids…also divorced and have lived by myself for the last 6-7 yrs. In 57 days I am moving to Alaska. I have never been there before and I have no idea what I will do for work or where I will be living. I just know I want to experience a year in Alaska, so I am.

    Everyone thinks my move to Alaska is risky/crazy…but I don’t care! I’ll rick the chance to be the only one in the “nursing home” with the coolest life- stories.

  • Scott Young


    Yes–exactly. The more you have to lose, the harder it is to take risks (as I mention in the last sentence).


    The point of this article isn’t that excuses are invalid. Simply that I *can’t* write for everyone, nor should I. My criticism of the reader attack isn’t because his argument is invalid, life *is* easier for me. Rather it’s that I can’t write to everyone, I have to pick a “typical” reader and write the article towards them, which often reflects my own life situation.

    If you can’t take on the same kinds of risks, my articles might not apply to you, but that doesn’t mean that a 20 year-old with no dependents can’t benefit from a push.


    I didn’t mean to imply having kids or a mortgage are poor life decisions, just that they *are* life decisions. They have gains but also consequences.


  • Chris Henry

    I tend to agree with Scott. Anytime you have a situation where more people are dependent on you – the riskier almost any decision becomes. This applies equally to the CEO of a large corporation as it does to a father of four (me). I find that as I age (and as my circle of dependents have grown), I have become much more methodical about potential opportunities and the potential risk/reward. Adapting opportunities to suit your lifestyle is possible (as ‘usexpat’ can attest to).

    This doesn’t mean throwing dreams away, it simply means remembering that your decisions affect more people than yourself. If someone would rather choose a life with no dependents and unlimited opportunities that is their perogative – just seems rather empty to me.

  • Prince Sam

    @ Scott

    I think maybe you understand that such people of sadist kind of reaction are only unveiling thier appeal help for help. I must confess it takes empathy to run the nature of blog you do. But then understanding their delimma is a pull to a higher level of empathy (trust there is sure a Dynamics of empathy) .

    My Take on the topic

    Wether old, elderly, aged or young(even a child). It takes the bold and dearing spirit(instictive personality closely related to habit) to take on any risky venture with the aim of striking success(admist all odds of societal norms). Its only the culture and traditional believe that cage the mind vis-a-vis an individual(victim) from reaching out.
    I suggest constant personal evaluation and action-plan for a head way to be made.consistency is always the rule in the game of betterment.

    Thanks Scott
    Prince Sam

  • Thomas Carney

    In this case, it felt like the article was specifically written for me! In about 9 days, my girlfriend and I will leave Munich, Germany (I’m Irish, so it is already a foreign country), and move to France. I felt that the learning curve on German had flatten out, so I want to take another move to liven things up!

    In Europe, I feel you can NEVER fail, so you can take more risks. If my current business collapses and I lose every penny I have (which is not going to happen as all I invest is my time), I can always get 350 Euro a month plus rent allowance from the Irish/German/French state. Paradoxically, us Europeans are often MORE risk-adverse than other nations without such a safety net.

    Some may complain about this and may be right, but I see it risk-free entrepreneurship for me!

  • William Veasley

    It is better to fail when we can accept failure in our lives. You are right about what one because certain situations can make it where failure is not an option.
    There is never an age where we should not take risks, but usually the risks become smaller in comparison. That is not the case for everyone, but I would go as far as to say most.
    I am young and single. I think if there is ever a right time for me to take risks, then it is now. I do not have anything to hold me back.
    It is hard, but I am trying to stay single an focus on William. I am too young to become a parent by mistake. I feel like it is the best thing I can do for my future.

    I know the only person who can stop me from achieving my dreams, is the same person I look at in the mirror.

    It was great for me to read your article. Thanks! ( :

    God bless,
    William Veasley

  • Alice

    Exactly the reason why I don’t procrastinate on doing risky stuff. If I don’t do it now I won’t do it in five years either.

  • Austin

    Thanks Scott,

    ALways love your articles man, and impressed with your output of quality thinking! Been trying to up my words per day, as a freelance copywriter, and some of your principles have helped.

    Don’t let the special snowflakes in here get you down, I’m sure you won’t.

    I’m debating an experiment working down in Ecuador or Costa Rica for a few months and will definitely revisit this article as the dream takes on more shape.


  • Cris

    About the book club, yes!! I’ll follow and read along! C.