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Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. – T. S. Eliot
Today is the 53rd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon. It was one of this nation’s greatest accomplishments. I watched the launch on my 14th birthday. Four days later, at a church picnic, I was one of scores of attendees who were ignoring a beautiful July summer day in Michigan to huddle around fuzzy portable televisions to watch the Moon landing. Unless you were there, you cannot imagine the impact that made.
Yet it almost never happened. At least not on that day. To put a man on the Moon in July 1969 NASA tore up a long plan of incremental steps. It skipped to sending a manned crew to circumnavigate the Moon in December 1968, tested the Lunar Module once in Earth orbit, did one lunar-landing dress rehearsal mission in Moon orbit before landing on the Moon. It compressed a four-year plan into six months.
Many critics and skeptics said NASA was going too far, too fast. Yet at the end of it, NASA had put a man on the Moon and returned him safely to Earth. Only by rising going too far did NASA discover how far they could go.
It is a principle that goes beyond moonshots. It applies to our everyday ordinary lives, too. Sometimes the only way you can find out how far you can go is to risk going too far.
When I was 21 and Janet was 19 (actually three days past her 19th birthday), we got married. We were warned that we were going too far. We were too young. I was barely out of my teens and she was still in them. Neither of us had finished college. We were told to wait. But we took the risk and embarked on a 40-plus-year adventure that only ended with her death. Along the way, we had built a home and our careers and produced three fine sons. Today they are on their own adventures, and I have three granddaughters (at least so far).
Twenty-three years ago, I was invited to write a book. “I’ve never written a book before,” I protested. I thought it was going too far. “Then it’s time you start,” said my editor. I finally decided that unless I risked going too far, I would never find out how far I could go. I wrote the book. Since then, I have written over 40 more books. If I had walked away from that opportunity, I suspect I would never have written even one.
Life is like that. Opportunities never come at the perfect time. I have taken jobs that I did not think I was ready for. Things I had never done before and was not sure I could do. In some cases, I measured carefully before taking the risk. In others, I made a pierhead jump, grabbing on because there was no alternative but to do nothing.
Sometimes I succeeded. A few times, I failed. Regardless I learned how far I could go. It was worth it every time.
I am not advocating casually making a heap of all your winnings and risking it on one turn of pitch-and-toss. But there will be times when you have to. When those times come, act boldly. (And if you lose, start again at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss.) Because at the worst, you will have failed while daring greatly. Your place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
At the best? You will find how far you can really go. It may be much further than you imagine.Published in