“Err on the side of caution”.
Personally, I always hated that phrase.
Why do people tell us to err on the side of caution, when to achieve anything in life requires risk?
Most people it seems live their life with a very strong sense of risk aversion. They avoid making mistakes, and take a lot of precautions to ensure that things are as safe as possible.
But this extreme policy seems to be the reason that a lot of people ‘live lives of quiet desperation’, as Thoreau once wrote.
Sometimes the people around us in school or at work are also telling us to be careful, to err on the side of caution in our career, relationships, and everyday life.
What Does Err on the Side of Caution Mean?
I can’t remember when I first heard the phrase ‘err on the side of caution’ but it’s something that I’ve heard many times from people when I decided to try something new.
What does it mean to err? Why is so important to be cautious? What is meaning of the phrase ‘err on the side of caution’.
The definition of the word ‘err’ means to make a mistake or incorrect judgment. The word err originated from the Latin word ‘errare’, meaning “to stray, wander.”
It seems that over many generations the idea of erring has become linked to making a mistake. It is closer in meaning to the word error than the original meaning of straying and wandering.
Interestingly, the synonyms for for the word ‘caution’ are prudence, care, discretion, deliberation, and vigilance. These other descriptions aren’t as much about being careful as they are about being aware of what you are doing.
Other common phrases that people will use in place of ‘err on the side of caution’ are
- Take precautions
- Take care
- Be safe
- Make sure
- Better safe than sorry
- Err on the safe side
The Cambridge Dictionary says that ‘erring on the side of caution’ means to ‘be especially careful rather than taking a risk or making a mistake’.
The philosophy seems to be focused on protecting what we have rather than aiming for more in life.
It says that if you are going to make a mistake it is better to make a small, cautious mistake so that you don’t risk as much. Another common phrase is that it’s ‘better to be safe than sorry’. Living your life in a risky manner can yield some exciting experiences, but the common adage seems to be cautious and you will fare better over the long-term.
While erring on the side of caution can keep you safe in life, it can also make you bored, miserable, and feeling like you aren’t really living.
Why Are People So Cautious?
All human beings have a strong inclination towards safety and normality. We fight against change because it’s comfortable to stay the same person we’ve become.
Abraham Maslow explained our need for safety and security in the hierarchy of human needs. He said that when we feel that our safety or security is at risk, we will do everything we can to regain and maintain it.
For most people, once they have a basic level of safety and security in life, this is enough for them to feel comfortable.
Once our comfort zone is set, we tend to try to protect it, and that means avoiding risky behavior that can cause mistakes or failure.
The Fear of Taking Risks
The term periculophobia is the fear of taking risks. Sometimes the fear of taking risks is caused by a traumatic past experience, but often it is simply caused by the imagined risks of failure.
The more we imagine what we don’t want to happen, the more we are likely to be frozen by fear and worry.
Taking risks in life are rarely as dangerous as we imagine. We imagine that a specific mistake or failure will somehow damage our lives, or cause to be ridiculed by others.
However, the reality is that should the failure we fear come to pass, we will be totally fine. In fact, a failure may lead us closer to the success we seek if we are willing to fail more often.
Action Cures Fear
One trick I’ve learned to short circuit this natural fear of taking risks or making mistakes is to simply take action.
The faster that I take action, the less time there is to worry, doubt, or get nervous.
In the famous self help book The Magic of Thinking Big, the author David J. Schwartz explains that by acting we actually cure the fear we have.
Once something is done, it is impossible to be fearful because we have already faced the consequences.
For this reason, I have always believed that we should err on the side of action, rather than caution.
The Corridor Principle
Years ago, I learned about the ‘corridor principle’ from speaker and author Brian Tracy in his program Maximum Achievement.
The corridor principle was an idea originally conceived by Robert Ronstadt of Babson College after a 12 year study of Entrepreneurship.
His study found that those entrepreneurs who simply launched into action, began walking down a ‘corridor’ in their business and their life.
Along the way down this new corridor, new doors of opportunity opened. These opportunities would not have appeared if they hadn’t started taking action.
I found this was true when I started my business as well. As I started to take action to set up and grow my business, I met new people, uncovered new opportunities and learned new lessons that helped me grow.
If I had just kept erring on the side of caution, I never would have discovered the opportunities and success that I have today.
Err On The Side of Taking Action
One thing that life has taught me is that life rewards action.
Rather than being overly cautious, it is better to take risks. Even if you know there is a chance of failure or a setback, at least you will learn and grow as a result.
Your confidence in yourself grows as you realize that no matter what you can take action. Even after you fail, you can take action again, and again, until you succeed.
Speaking for myself, all the exciting, interesting, life-affirming experiences I’ve had are the result of taking action.
Not once in my life has waiting or hoping made me into a better or more successful person.
If you have something in your mind that you want to do, but alarm bells of fear are telling you to be cautious, that means it’s time to act.
If you have people around telling you to be careful, or to not take risks even though you know it’s what you want to do, then it’s time to act.
Err on the side of action.
Life will reward your courage.