How Saying Yes Can Be the Biggest Risk of All

by Joy Reeves '18
I just finished my first year at Duke University. Looking back on my time at St. Andrew’s, I realize that spontaneously saying YES to exciting intellectual opportunities without overthinking them– the true essence of risk-taking – was one of my greatest tools for success. And I owe it all to my time as an “impulsive teenager.”
When I was a rising ninth grader, I remember receiving cautionary reminders from my parents, my middle school health classes, and my favorite coming-of-age movies that my underdeveloped brain and I would soon embark on the grand adventure of adolescence… and probably make some unwise choices along the way.
 
New environment…new friends…new freedoms. A path of growth, laden with obstacles like peer pressure and rebellious cynicism. As it became ingrained in my mind – and most teenage minds – that rash decision-making and mistake-making would be inevitable in our futures, the words “impulsivity” and “risk” quickly took on negative connotations. I always associated them with consequences, like overspending money or winding up in detention.
 
What society didn’t tell me was that my impulsive teenage mind would actually help me become a better person.
 
I started off my freshman year at Duke nervously clutching a handful of brochures at the Campus Activities Fair and ended it happily immersed in organizations that embodied my passions, including Duke Environmental Alliance, Duke Wesley Methodist fellowship, a delightfully geeky social group called Round Table, a community service fraternity, and the Huang Fellows program for scientific research.
 
I asked myself the same question I asked a few months earlier when I graduated from St. Andrew’s: How did I get here?
 
I tried boiling down the risk-taking strategies I’ve carried beyond St. Andrew’s into three points.

  1. Adopt the “Insta-Yes”
  2. Reach out
  3. Make challenge pacts with friends
The first one, the “Insta-Yes,” is simple: if something sounds cool, say yes to it. (I like to do so almost instantly, before my fearful brain talks me out of it.) Take charge of a committee for the Environmental Alliance? Insta-Yes. Boldly turn in a comic memoir instead of an essay for my final Writing paper? Yes. No regrets. Sign up for an experimental Chemistry 101 peer-study group? Sure. (I sprinted across the quad to turn in my application right at 10 a.m. and grabbed one of the last remaining spots. The study group later saved my grade.) I took these chances because abundant opportunities and risk-tasking was ingrained in me during my time at St. Andrew’s…like trying out (and butchering) a solo in A Cappella Club, or choosing a challenging topic for my research paper. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to just be a Yes-Person – even at the risk of spreading myself too thin – because I’m more scared of the alternative: succumbing to the “I’ll Pass,” a false sense of rationality that actually stems from self-doubt and a fear of failure. Say yes, and the rest will follow. Well-intentioned impulsivity drives courage.
 
The second strategy is one that I learned from my St. Andrew’s Oral History Project. Reach out! I’ll never forget what it first felt like to contact my OHP interviewee (a respected female astrobiologist at NASA) out of the blue, squirming as I sent an email that felt intrusive and unworthy of her time. I quickly learned that it wasn’t. Not only did she agree to the interview, but she sent me a box of artifacts from her trip to Antarctica and invited me over to her house for lunch. As a college student, I cannot emphasize enough the power of a carefully crafted email. I’m not sure why we students are afraid of Reaching Out (or “networking” with professionals, or whatever you want to call it). The possibility of awkwardness? Creepiness? Taking initiative? Duke is pretty big on community involvement, and I found myself conducting countless rewarding interviews with everyone from environmental journalists to functional medicine practitioners for my school projects. The bottom line: reaching out works, and it doesn’t have to be creepy or awkward!
 
My final strategy has been to make challenge pacts with friends. I like surrounding myself with people who aren’t afraid to try new things (and possibly fail at them) alongside me. Army crawling my way through the trenches of college calculus was easier –at times, even joyous – when several of my friends pledged to do the same. It reminded me a lot of a risky class my friends and I took at St. Andrew’s, AP Physics, which inspired me to seek out new challenges. Whenever a test was hard, I leaned on the solidarity of my friends and our joint promise to accept the loss, becoming comfortable “taking the L” together. When things went well, our group celebrations were infinitely more rewarding!
 
From St. Andrew’s to Duke and beyond, I hope to continue taking risks (some more calculated than others) by saying yes, reaching out, and making challenge pacts, all while embracing the reality that growing up entails making mistakes. Surrounded by the societal message that impulsivity is bad, it has taken years of branching out and taking risks in school for me to realize that some forms of impulsivity – such as following intellectual whims – actually have priceless rewards. What have mine been?
 
Lifelong high school memories, building academic grit, ending up at my dream school, finding new friends and experiences…just to name a few.
 
Thanks to Duke, and St. Andrew’s, I’ve never been prouder to be an impulsive teenager.
 
Joy Reeves '18 is a sophomore at Duke University, where she is studying environmental science and policy. This past summer she interned in an environmental science lab as part of the highly selective Huang Fellows program. Click here to read about her experience as a Huang Fellow, and click here to listen to her interview on the Think Differently and Deeply Podcast, where she discusses how Mind, Brain, and Education Science study strategies she learned at St. Andrew's have benefitted her in college.
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    • Joy Reeves '18 interned at a Duke University environmental science lab over the summer.

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St. Andrew’s Episcopal School is a private, coeducational college preparatory day school for students in preschool (Age 2) through grade 12, located in Potomac, Maryland.