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Playing It Safe?

Should we play it safe or throw caution to the wind?

by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage us to venture outside our comfort zones (SEAL theme: Keep On Learning).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need the quotation by Mark Twain beginning ‘Twenty years from now . . .’, available at:

    You may wish to ask a student to read it out.


  1. Read (or ask a student to read) the quotation by Mark Twain beginning ‘Twenty years from now . . .’

    This is a quotation from Mark Twain. It is important to think about what he is saying. It may seem difficult to think about where we might be in 20 years’ time, but maybe we could try: we might have families of our own, a good job - we might even be living in a different country.

  2. However, the focus of today’s assembly isn’t the sentiment of looking forward 20 years. We are going to focus on the second part of the quotation, where Twain says, ‘So throw off the bowlines . . . Discover.’

    In general, people are good at concentrating on keeping safe and comfortable. Many people don’t want to take risks and find this difficult to do.

  3. Risks are the things that make us feel uncomfortable, that take us out of our comfort zones. Imagine that you are surrounded by something that protects you, and that is your comfort zone. Maybe your comfort zone involves you staying in the UK for your holidays because you don’t like flying. Maybe it is not trying to speak a foreign language while you are abroad because you’ll feel uncomfortable if you don’t get it right. It could be not putting your hand up in a lesson in case you get the answer wrong, or it could be just staying within the boundaries of what you know to be safe. It could be driving the long way round because you don’t like going on motorways, or not singing a solo if you sing in a choir.

  4. When I talk about risks, Im not talking about being reckless. Some things are there to protect and help us: it would be reckless to go swimming in the sea in an area that you know has strong currents and is unsafe. It would also be reckless not to wear a life jacket on a boat, just because you think it is taking a risk. Another example might be jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute!

  5. Mark Twain is talking about risks that make you who you are. Have you ever had an opportunity that you didn’t take because you thought you would fail? That thought must have occurred to all of the people who appear on TV talent shows such as The Voice or The X Factor! However, if those people had not stepped outside their comfort zones, they would have had no chance of success.

  6. What is also important about the Mark Twain quotation is the ‘discover’ part. By stepping out of our comfort zone and doing something that we haven’t ever done before, or something that might mean we fail, we will discover a lot about ourselves. We may find that we have a talent for something, or that we really enjoy a new or different activity. We may discover that we have strengths we never imagined we had.

    There is a well-known song by Baz Luhrmann called ‘Everybodys free (to wear sunscreen)’, where one of the pieces of advice is to do one thing every day that scares you. That could be going to sleep with the light turned off, talking to a new person or putting ourselves in a new situation. Its good to be scared sometimes. Its good to feel the adrenaline rush that we get when were nervous, and the butterflies in our stomach! That is being prepared to take a risk.

  7. Just one quick point: don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t ever be worried about lack of success. Most people who we think of as amazing successes, who have discovered something essential, will all have failed at some point. For example, many famous scientists have carried out research over many years, and it has often led them down dead ends. There must have been many times when they felt as if they had failed in their task.

    Did they give up? No, they kept on, continually out of their comfort zones and often ridiculed by their contemporaries. But they kept going, and discovered facts that extended people’s knowledge.

    If, after falling at the first hurdle, they had decided not to continue because they weren’t comfortable with taking risks and feeling as if they weren’t getting anywhere, the world of science would have been poorer. By stepping out of their comfort zones, and not being afraid to take a risk, they discovered wonderful things about themselves and about humanity.

Time for reflection

If we don’t take risks and go beyond our comfort zones - if we don’t throw off the bowlines - how will we ever know what we could have achieved?

Let’s listen to Mark Twain’s words again, and think about how we, either today or in the future, can step out of our comfort zones, and discover more about ourselves and the world.

‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’


‘He who would valiant be’ (Come and Praise, 44)

Publication date: October 2017   (Vol.19 No.10)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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