Great artists and intellectuals take risks. They dare to challenge prevailing paradigms of thought and popular practice, which guarantees they’ll receive resistance and ridicule. Gregor Mendel’s pioneering work in genetics was ignored by his peers. Claude Monet endured abuse by both critics and the public. Marcel Proust was rejected by publishers more times than he could count. Galileo’s and Einstein’s insights were profound and eventually world-changing, but they were strongly opposed before their ideas eventually took hold. Aldous Huxley and Bob Dylan were hated by many even after they were established in their fields. And Socrates, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were killed because of the risks they took.
Risk is a standard feature of innovation. This guarantees opposition, an unfortunate deterrent to proposing new ideas. So along with the fact that innovation demands strong imagination and intelligence, the innovator must be courageous, willing to be hated or humiliated for the sake of the truth or beauty they pursue.
Risk also guarantees occasional, if not frequent, failure, as illustrated in the lives of Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, and the Wright Brothers. So eventual success requires persistence and even an obstinate personality. The innovator, then, must be a well-differentiated person, defining him- or herself by a standard beyond public opinion. To many s/he will necessarily appear insensitive or even insane.
The oft-repeated exhortation to “be a risk-taker”—a favored bromide at graduation ceremonies every Spring—is almost never fully serious or else it is hypocritical, because most people only like risk-takers in the abstract. They resent and are annoyed by the real, concrete risk takers in their lives (though all of us have benefitted from them). This is one more sad fact about the human condition.
Perhaps a better or more realistic exhortation is “be patient with risk takers” or “be open to new innovations.” Not everyone has the disposition to be a genuine risk-taker, so why encourage everyone to do so? But all of us encounter risk-takers and are forced to decide whether to ignore, resist, ridicule, or even hate them because their ideas cut against the cultural grain and challenge our own beliefs or values. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t subject their ideas to rigorous critical review. On the contrary, rational critique is the mature, responsible response to new challenging ideas. It is good for the world of arts and ideas and good for risk-takers themselves.
So if you’re not a risk-taker in the sense of pursuing innovations in your field, then at least take the risk of patiently considering and perhaps reasonably responding to the risk-takers in your life. Their latest risk might be one of their mistakes, but your demonstrating this through rational argument will help them and the rest of the world more than empty ridicule or blithe dismissal.
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