How often are you sometimes audacious and sometimes prudent?

Today is March 30 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you sometimes audacious and sometimes prudent?” Napoleon Bonaparte noted that “The art of being sometimes audacious and sometimes very prudent is the secret to success.” Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well involves learning when to be audacious and when to be prudent. To help with today’s reflection it is important to start off with definitions. Audacious means the willingness to take bold risks. The definition of prudent is a bit more complicated as its modern meaning resembles little from its original explanation.

In "How the Modern World Made Cowards of Us All," a July 21, 2017 New York Times opinion piece. Arthur C. Brooks explained how the modern connotation of prudence as caution is a modern invention and referred to the German philosopher Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues for the original, and correct, definition. “Prudence comes from the Latin prudentia meaning sagacity or expertise and signified righteous decision making that is rooted in acuity and practical wisdom.” According to Pieper, the correct definition of being prudent “is the willingness to do the right thing, even if that involves fear and risk.” To clarify Brooks added “In other words, to be rash is only one breach of true prudence. It is also a breach to be timid.”

Having the willingness to do the right thing, even if that involves fear and risk, is a conflict for most people. At times life calls us to be audacious; and at other times is calls us to be timid. Both strategies can help us do the right thing. In your pursuit of doing the right thing life may indeed require you to remain quiet. Sometimes, however, life demands that you act with audacity and boldness. Another way of thinking about this is from a scene in the 2000 film Contender when President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) addresses Congress on the nomination of a woman as his Vice President, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Evans begins his speech with the following statement “Napoleon once said when asked to explain the lack of great statesmen in the world that to get power you need to display absolute pettiness to exercise power you need to show true greatness such pettiness and such greatness are rarely found in one person.” This duality between greatness and pettiness is akin to the balance one needs to find between audacity and prudence. One needs to know when to be bold and when to do the right thing even if that involves fear and risk.

To shed light on how people approach this decision as to when to be audacious and when to act with prudence, Brooks discussed research conducted by the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. To conduct this research Levitt found several thousand people in the throes of a difficult decision, weighing choices like job offers and marriage proposals, who volunteered to let him make the decision for them — with the flip of a coin. Can you imagine letting a stranger flip a coin to help you make a major life decision! “Heads meant to decide in the affirmative; tails meant to decline. Levitt’s research found people were much more likely to take the decision affirmatively than they would be if left to their devices, so the experiment was effective.

The interesting result concerned the participants’ happiness. In follow-up interviews six months later, Levitt found that the average “heads” person was significantly happier than the average “tails” person. As Brooks summarized “Here is what all this means: Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness. On average, we say ‘no’ too much when faced with an opportunity or dilemma. True prudence means eschewing safety and familiarity in favor of entrepreneurial living. It requires clear eyes, a courageous heart and an adventurous spirit.” Choosing to be audacious can help you with prudence and you navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well.

Have you been both audacious and prudent in your life?

How often are you prudent when making a decision about your career or life?

Why do you think it is difficult for people/yourself to be ‘sometimes audacious and sometimes prudent?’