How I Learned That We Sometimes Need To Fall Off Trees

How I Learned That We Sometimes Need To Fall Off Trees
Love Letters to Pearl Diving. Part 1.



In Ashoka, we have a culture of talking about how working with Social Entrepreneurs and in the organization changed our lives. We talk about it over a beer with colleagues, it comes up consistently in staff retreats, and even in their goodbye emails people talk about how the entrepreneurial and collegial spirit, the permission to think big and the freedom you are entrusted with, impacted their idea of who they were and – more importantly – who they could aspire to become.

All of this resonates with me too. Ashoka´s organizational culture has changed my life. But for me, there is another, an additional layer.
When I joined Ashoka as Country Director for Austria, I started looking for candidates for the Ashoka Fellowship. It felt natural to do this in the first year, to start this mysterious process of search, deep-diving, looking for “pearls,” surveying the world for those very special people who become Ashoka Fellows.

The hardest part was understanding our concept of innovation and systems change. But I got there, and I savored those moments of intellectual play: hours discussing, dissecting, deconstructing ideas, finding new interpretations, frames – almost like mind puzzles.
I also hated some of it: having to categorize, to put those beautiful creations into “boxes,” to label and disqualify some of them, and then to draft, write, rewrite fellow profiles.

But then, something almost magical happened. I met Gerald Koller, who has since become Fellow in Austria. His work and thinking mesmerized me. In our first encounter, he told me to make at least three hours of time for our conversation. So I did. And I emerged a different person and a different parent.

Gerald´s insights are based on a deep insight, one that touches on what makes us human – our appetite for risk. What Gerald proposes is that to be happy, we need a balance of normality, family, home and routine, but we also need extraordinary moments of “high.”
We need routine to feel rooted, but if we don’t find moments of diversion, we walk down the road of depression. Conversely, those who only seek out “highs” are prone to addiction.

As humans, we are wired for risk. We seek it. It is what makes those moments of “high” special. People find their “rush” in different things, for some it is climbing a mountain, jumping off cliffs, running a marathon, dancing through the night, indulging in alcohol and substances.

Gerald helped me understand that to feel “complete,” we need to feel “alive.” And we are most alive in situations that are risky: in this inner place, where the border between risk and danger starts to blur. Situations, in which we “test” ourselves and learn more about who we really are and want to be.

Gerald trains young people, social workers, mayors of towns and parents to understand their own risk behaviors, become risk competent themselves and empower others to do the same.
Gerald helped me understand that we cannot lead happy lives without taking risks, and instead what we need to learn is how to tread that fine line between risk and danger. That what we want to avoid is the danger, not the risk.

He also helped me understand that this meant I had to be a different parent: that in order for kids to become the strong, balanced, self-guided, happy grown-ups we want them to be, we have to expose them to risk and guide them in their own learning path of weighing those risks. He helped me see that as parents our role is not to stop our kids from climbing a tree, but that our role is to ask them how high they want to climb, whether it still feels right to them, help them find their inner radar for their very own risk appetite. And that our role as parents is to guide them to experience the pleasure of celebrating their very own, self-guided achievement.
Which, by the way, will make them not only happier people, but is also vital to their development into active citizens later on.
Does it mean that kids will fall? Break their arm? Maybe. But what is more likely, is that they will start trusting their inner compass and know how high to climb next time.
It is this guidance towards risk competence that instills them with a sense of ownership, responsibility, and trust in their own judgment. It will be an invaluable skill later when they are confronted with offers; we don’t want them to accept.

Gerald taught me to trust my own inner risk compass, to indulge in the rush of happiness, to celebrate craziness once in a while, to let go of control, to trust my instincts as the only path to contentment.

And luckily, my daughter has not fallen off a tree yet.

I continue to be amazed by the powerful insights, the masterful strategies, the surprising innovations our fellows come up with, they have taught me more about life and the world than anything I ever learned in school – read more about my learnings on my blog.

Learn more about Gerald Koller`s work here.