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Holten: Life is not risk free, nor is it meant to be

Kevin Holten1 / 2
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Do you know what has become taboo in North Dakota?


Now you might scoff at such a suggestion, especially since we are in the midst of an oil boom. But it's true. North Dakota is a no-risk state and has been since long before the oil boom.

It didn't start out that way.

I know this because I've heard my grandfather's stories. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing, but it will affect our long-term legacy and it will result in unachieved potential.

Of course the media refers to it as "conservatism." But that puts a political spin on it and this is not political. Rather, this is grass roots, it's individual, it's ingrown and it might even be a distant cousin to a phobia.

According to Mr. Dictionary, "risk" is when you expose yourself to the chance of injury or loss and put yourself in danger. That definition seems a little harsh to me because sometimes when you put yourself at risk, you win $10 million, score a game-winning touchdown or win the Indianapolis 500.

Apparently a few hugely successful people at some point convinced us that risk is a fire-breathing dragon to be avoided. I suspect that was in order to hold us back so they could have more opportunity to succeed.

Instead, risk brings to mind the famous quote, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

You've said it, I've said it and a million other people have said it in 2 million different ways, but nobody seems to know who said it first. I suspect it originated with the Bible and has something to do with faith. Either way, it certainly seems to be true because, as you may have noticed, few people accomplish much sitting in their La-Z-Boy, munching on chips and flicking channels.

Some of the synonyms for "risk," define it more appropriately than the definition itself; like uncertainty, possibility, prospect, fortune, gamble, luck, speculation and venture.

In the meantime, where do you think we would be without risk? You'd be reading this column by candlelight and certainly not online because Thomas Edison would have never invented the light bulb. That's because he went through a lot of investors and nearly gave up 100 times before he accomplished what he set out to accomplish. You can look it up. In fact, he once said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

In other words, Tommy didn't wave a wand and suddenly Las Vegas lit up the night sky. No. He risked a lot. Others did too. He was successful, they made money and that's usually the way it works.

But sometimes it doesn't work that way, for a variety of reasons, and those are the people we butcher and never give a second chance to, just because they followed their dream and failed the first time.

My grandfather came to North Dakota as a teenager in 1908 full of vigor and ready to make his mark. No doubt your ancestors did the same thing.

After being a horse wrangler on a couple of ranches for a few years, he became a homesteader, married the daughter of another nearby homesteader, had six kids, didn't make a zillion dollars but was blessed with a very good life. In other words, his gamble paid off. I wonder what happened to our ancestor's vigor, sense of adventure and faith.

In the midst of this boom, I've heard a number of people mention that when they've come up with an idea and presented it to people in other states the response is usually, "That's a great idea and you know what, we could also do this, this and this!"

But when they bring up that same idea in North Dakota, the response tends to be, "That won't work because of this, this and this."

Is it true? Are we so opposed to risk that we've created an aura of defeat?

Perhaps our abhorrence towards risk is a phobia that has been honestly earned with time, forged by a Great Depression and fortified by oil busts in the '50s and '80s?

Because if you look at the list of those who are investing in North Dakota and gaining the most from this boom, you'll find that it is made up of a lot of out-of-staters making big money and ultimately taking it home with them.

Is this going to be our lasting legacy?

Perhaps we need to heed the words of Frank Warren, founder of PostSecret Project, which has a website of over 450 million visitors who said, "Be wise enough not to be reckless, but brave enough to take great risks."

Holten is the manager of The Drill,

which is a part of Forum News Service.

Email him at