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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?” Translating one dream into another over decades will require more decisions, choices, and considerations that you could possibly imagine. Knowing when to go left instead of right, and vice versa, is a common theme found throughout the lives of anyone who ever navigated the chaos. To further complicate matters, most life situations have more than two choices. Therefore, today’s post, like others found throughout this Navigate the Chaos series, focuses on decision making.

Napoleon Bonaparte noted that “The art of being sometimes audacious and sometimes very prudent is the secret to success.” Navigating the chaos and leveraging your mind, body, and spirit 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 relatively recent 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.”

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.”

In a November 20, 2014, Psychology Today article "Understand Your Strengths," Ryan M. Niemiec discussed the complexity of prudence. “Prudence is one character strength that is not only one of the least endorsed strengths around the world but one of the least understood strengths.” In other words, people seldom endorse prudence to be used by others while simultaneously being misunderstood. Niemiec continued and wrote “Prudence refers to being ‘wisely cautious.’ Prudence gets a bad rap because individuals tend to think of the overuse of prudence (i.e., stuffiness and rigidity that negatively impacts others) as prudence. However, when prudence is expressed in a balanced way, it is far from stuffiness; instead, it is being conscientious, planful, goal-oriented, and respectful to others. Prudent people usually take the time to think things through, such as examining and reflecting on situations before acting, and approaching life with carefulness.”

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 which is derived from Napoleon’s quote earlier in this reflection: “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.

  • Have you been both audacious and prudent in your life?

  • How often do you think about the difference between being audacious compared to being prudent?

  • Upon reflection, do you find yourself having a history of being more audacious or prudent?

  • Moving forward, would you like to practice being more audacious or more prudent? Why is that?

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


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