Stop Playing Safe:


Rethink Risk. Unlock the Power of Courage. Achieve Outstanding Success


By Margie Warrell





Chapter 1

Purpose: for the sake of what?

There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. Nelson Mandela

You might have picked up this book because you’re looking for some quick-fix ideas for reigniting your career, negotiating a better salary, dealing with a difficult co-worker or simply gaining more recognition for your work. I trust it will help you with all of that. But to accomplish all you are capable of, there is nothing more important than answering the perennial burning question, ‘For the sake of what?’

For the sake of what should you bother to work hard and take on new challenges that stretch you?

To answer this question you need to reflect not just on what you want to do in your working life, but who you want to become through the work you do each day. In an accelerated age of superficiality and distraction, at a time when so many people are struggling with an uncertain future and unexpected challenges, finding purpose in work has become the new ‘mission critical’.

Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist, who was the only member of his family to survive the Nazi concentration camps, devoted his life to understanding the power of purpose. Frankl bore witness not only to the murder of his extended family, but to the death of thousands of men who were unable to survive the barbaric conditions they found themselves in. However, he also saw men whose will to live enabled them to fight off despair, defeat death and live to bear witness to the brutality and deprivation forced upon them. His experiences in World War II and thereafter led him to believe that the power of the human spirit can only be fully unleashed when our purpose for living transcends merely surviving.

If you have ever faced a significant crisis in your life you will have experienced the power of purpose to tap reserves of energy, strength and courage you didn’t know you had. Your mission was clear. Your goal was compelling. Your focus was laser. Your potential was tapped.

The power of a focused purpose is similar to the energy of light focused through a magnifying glass. Diffused light is not of much use, but when its energy is concentrated—as through a magnifying glass—that same light can set fire to paper. Focus its energy even more, as with a laser beam, and it has the power to cut through steel. A clear sense of purpose enables you to focus your efforts away from distracted busyness to what matters most. Nowhere is this more important than in your work, and how you employ your skills, talents and time throughout your life.

The search for meaning

You have everything it takes to achieve whole new levels of success in your work and to make a meaningful impact on the lives of everyone affected by your work, whether directly or indirectly. But doing so requires a commitment to refusing to give in to the forces of mediocrity that pull so many people into the ranks of disengagement and resignation. It’s also conditional on you making a commitment to stop playing safe in what you think, do and say, knowing every worthwhile endeavor demands an element of risk. And it’s conditional on you making a stand for greatness, engaging in your work with the bold belief that what you do with your talents and skills over the course of your working life matters, and that how you do it matters even more.

  Ever more people today have the means to live but not the meaning to live for. Albert Einstein

The search for meaning has been one of the most enduring and compelling themes of humanity since our origins. Where animals are driven by a purpose to simply survive, we want more from life than mere survival. Without an answer to the question, ‘Survival for the sake of what?’ we can quickly fall into disengagement, disillusionment, distraction and a quiet sense of despair.

Study after study done by organisations around the globe tells us that up to 50 per cent of the workforce doesn’t believe that what they do matters. In fact, it is estimated that only 30 per cent of workers are actually engaged in their job and 50 per cent would leave it if they could afford to. That adds up to millions of people who spend one-third of their adult lives going through the motions of their job without any belief that what they do matters much beyond the fact that they get paid for it. Perhaps you are one of them.

  What you do with your time and talents each day matters. How you do it matters even more.

It’s not just a lack of meaning in our work, and the rise and rise of employee disengagement that are at issue here. Many people also live with a nagging doubt about the lack of meaning in their lives, reflected in the increased rates drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicide, and the unprecedented use of antidepressant medications. The statistics are alarming and point to a crisis of meaning on an unprecedented scale. Studies have found that once we earn enough to have our basic needs fulfilled (estimated at about $70,000 per annum), extra money adds only incrementally to our happiness.

There is a marked difference between being well off and well being. Given we are wealthier today than any time in history, it seems the answer to a more rewarding life cannot be found by chasing more money, but in finding greater meaning. It is an epic tragedy that so many people spend so much of their lives disengaged, disillusioned and desperate to be doing something other than what they are doing. The stakes could not be higher.

In an accelerated age of shallow superficiality and distraction, people crave for purpose and a meaningful reason for being. I’m not being glib; I just want to be straight with you. You’re smart, so you understand that your best thinking got you where you are today. Reading this book and wondering what it might offer you that you haven’t already thought of. You also appreciate that if you want to get to the next level of success, you have to think differently about what you do, how you do it and why you do it.

It’s going to take some deep reflection and serious soul searching—something many people have become very good at avoiding. As John Gardener, President of Carnegie Corporation, wrote in Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society, ‘Human beings have always employed an enormous variety of clever devices for running away from themselves. We can keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have the time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within’. Probing the ‘fearful and wonderful world within’ is what’s required to come out from behind a curtain of comfort.

Know your why

Like me, you’ve probably experienced when travelling internationally, customs officers often hit you with a blast of questions just when you’re weary and in dire need of a strong shot of caffeine.

‘So, what brings you here to today, ma’am?’

‘What do you do?’

‘Where are you planning to go on your stay here?


Although I generally try to answer as quickly and simply as possible, we should all think more deeply about these questions in the wider context of our lives. Let me reframe them for you in a wider context:

‘So, what brings you here today (to reading this book)?’

‘What matters most to you in your work and life?’

‘Where would you like to go in the future?’


Why indeed.

Of course, I didn’t write this book to convince you to change career, quit your job or start your own business.  Rather, I wrote it to help you re-evaluate the unique value you have to add in the world,  to rethink how you’ve approached risk, so that you can create more success in your work and add more depth to your life.

A quick web search will yield many dozens of methods, tips and techniques for discovering your life purpose—some in as little as 20 minutes. (I kid you not.) Ahhh—if only life’s biggest question could be answered on Wikipedia! While it’s unlikely that you’ll find a quick-fix way to discover your life purpose, the abundance of search results reflects the struggle so many people have with finding a deeper purpose to their lives, and even more so in their work.

German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said, ‘He who has a why can endure any how’. Knowing your why is the first step to figuring out your how: how you will achieve the success you want. Without a clear why, it is harder to figure out your how, and tougher still to persevere with it when the going gets tough. In John F Kennedy’s words: ‘Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction’. You must start with a clear sense of purpose and direction.

Too often we think that if we could just have the success we wanted, we could be happier, braver, be the person we really want to be. We wrongly think that only then can we and afford the luxury of asking ourselves the deeper question of life: Why does what I do matter? But it actually works in reverse. As illustrated in figure 1.1, only when you know why what you do matters can you be the courageous person who you need to be to work out how to reach your goals, and have the success you want in your career or in your working life.




Figure 1.1: begin with why          

  If you were to meet a stranger later today and they asked you why you did the work you do, what would you tell them? Often the first answer is a fairly obvious and superficial one. You need the money. But if they kept asking you “And why do you do that?” eventually they would drill down to the deeper values, motivations and aspirations in your life. In the end you're the underlying Why that drives you has a profound impact on your experience in life, and your ability to create the success and make the different you truly want. Which is why it’s important to begin with why.

Your why will compel you to take on bigger challenges that stretch you; to engage with people around you more meaningfully; and to make an optimal impact on the lives of those you work with, those you serve and the world at large. Yes, I know this sounds very largesse … perhaps a bit pie in the sky. But bear with me here, and put any doubts or cynicism to the side for a moment and give your heart and mind the opportunity to explore the possibility that there are things you and only you can do on this earth, and that if you don’t do them, no-one else will (or at least not in the way you would). Your fears, doubts and cynicism that have confined your actions up to now and, if left at the helm of your life, will steer you towards safety, and away from courageous actions needed for you to create the changes, opportunities and success you aspire to.

Human beings have extraordinary potential yet, as psychologist William James once wrote, most of us live in a ‘very restricted circle of your potential being’. Research in neurophysiology of the brain is beginning to show us just how much. Using conservative estimates, researchers have projected that the human brain has approximately 100 trillion neuron junctions. This means that our possible mental states exceed the total number of atoms in the universe. When you have a big enough why to reframe the work you do each day from what you can get to what you can give, you’ll be able to tap that capacity and with it access your reserves of energy, passion and courage and so use your talents and skills to make the difference that only you can make. Then—and only then—will you be able to step out of your comfort zone more bravely, engage in bigger conversations and become the person you have it within you to be.


A Forbes columnist, executive life coach, and bestselling author, Margie Warrell draws on her background in psychology and business to get to the heart of what holds people back in work, love and life. An adventure traveller and the mother of four children, Margie is a sought after keynote speaker and media commentator (Today Show, Fox, CNBC) with clients ranging from NASA to the UN Foundation.


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Publication Date: 04-01-2013

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