People who are brave without being reckless are my favorite people in the world. Hands down. They’re exciting and fun. Open to new experiences. And when you go on an adventure with them, you know it’s not only going to be a blast but that you’ll almost certainly get home safely. It’s the best of both worlds.
I mentioned this in passing on Twitter a while back, that my favorite people are brave but not reckless, not really expecting much of a response. But you folks surprised me. I had quite a few people write in to say that they had no idea what that meant. A few folks insisted that the difference was strictly situational and only clear in hindsight. That what determined whether someone had behaved bravely or recklessly was how fortunate the result was. It was all a matter of luck, these readers said. It’s a pithy thought, nigh aphoristic. It’s the kind of thing that is snappy and sounds true.
But I knew down to my core it wasn’t. Because I’ve known people who were consistently reckless and people who were consistently brave in their temperaments and general behavior — and the truth was that both groups frequently had their ups and downs as far as results. It wasn’t like the brave people always met with success or the reckless folks always met with failure.
No, I knew it had to be something else.
And so I turned my attention to the third type of response I got from readers: They asked me what the difference between being brave and reckless was.
I know the difference intuitively. It’s something I feel on a deep implicit level and can sense in other people once I get to know them. But at that time I had trouble pinpointing how and breaking it down into words. So I let it sit in my subconscious and did other things.
It took over a month, but the answer finally came to me in a form I can communicate to other people. I see three differences and one similarity.
1. Brave people recognize and acknowledge the risks.
Brave people recognize and acknowledge the risks. This is huge. Part of being courageous involves understanding that there’s actually danger there.
A lot of the habitually impulsive, reckless individuals I know simply don’t feel fear because they don’t truly believe that anything bad could happen to them. Because of this, they will leap without looking. Many of the reckless people I know tend to be extremely confident — easily taking credit for their successes but blaming their mistakes on others or bad luck. Because of this, even if they do have important life experiences, they won’t learn vital lessons from them — and this means they aren’t prepared to make better decisions in the future.
In contrast, the brave people I know tend to do thorough post mortems after things go wrong. They analyze what they could have prevented (and what they couldn’t have, it’s usually a mix). And in doing so, they come up with ways that they can better prepare in the future. This leads me to the next difference.
2. Brave people appropriately respect the risks by preparing for them (and researching them).
Acknowledging the risks is an excellent start if you want to avoid being reckless. However, it’s not quite far enough. Just saying that a certain bad outcome could happen isn’t the same as deeply accepting the possibility.
Careful, brave people go further. They respect the risks on a deeper level by taking appropriate steps to prepare for them.
What could this look like? Well, for a concrete example, let’s say you were going to do some tent camping for the first time. A reckless person might jump right in, trusting themselves to do fine in the situation. They might bring very barebones gear and assume that they’ll know how to scrounge up food and water and determine what’s safe and what isn’t. And because of this, they might get out there and have to pack up their tent and come home early or even worse they might do something dangerous like drink tainted water that hasn’t been purified or eat plants without knowing what they are.
Conversely, someone who is brave but not reckless will research the topic thoroughly. They’ll look up information or ask experts questions if need be. They might go with someone who is experienced in tent camping their first time instead of trying to figure it all out on their own. And they’ll figure out what the proper equipment and provisions would be. (And they’ll typically figure out what they need for gear and contingency plans if random bad luck happens — inclement weather, dealing with animals, etc.)
Even with this research and preparation, a brave person might still find themselves slightly uneasy before they have this new experience, but that trepidation doesn’t make them any less brave. As they say, bravery is feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
3. Brave people follow through in doing as much as they can to mitigate the risks.
Finally, those who aren’t reckless actually follow through on their preparation. They apply the knowledge they’ve gained and execute whatever plans they’ve arranged to mitigate the risks.
In our camping example, this would involve actually bringing the gear (or your skilled companion) with you. It might involve bringing paper maps of the area so if your navigation device crashes or fails (due to poor cell coverage or a software glitch, for example), you’ll still be able to find your way around. It really depends on the situation and what could go wrong.
Does this mean that the trip will be a success? No. For example, I went on a camping trip one time where we prepared really well but still had to turn around and go home early because one of us got sick (not from camping, but it still sucked), and while we could have stuck it out, it just made more sense to head back home and not take the risk of getting any sicker that far from civilization.
You mitigate as many risks as you can — even though you can’t prevent every bad outcome. That brings me to my final point.
But Both Bravery and Recklessness Involve Accepting Some Uncertainty
Whether you’re being brave or reckless, you’re still contending with uncertainty.
This is why you can’t judge whether someone is brave or reckless based on a single bad or good outcome. Luck is always a factor.
Avoiding recklessness involves mitigating as much risk as you can and preparing to deal well with bad outcomes if they arise.
But you’ll never control everything. At a certain point, brave people must jump. That’s the brave part. Because the truth is that you will never eliminate all uncertainty. Life just doesn’t work that way. But avoiding recklessness means that you get rid of the risks you can and adequately prepare yourself to recover from anything untoward or unexpected that might befall you.