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Lessons From Risk (the Board Game) May Help You Change Your Life

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Eric Zimmer barely survived his twentieth year, when his struggle with heroin was at its worst. In this TED talk, he looks back on the choices he made and strategies he developed that supported his full recovery. Don’t worry if you’ve never played Risk! Eric’s presentation lays it all out clearly.

Eric Zimmer does not mince words: “When I was 20 years old, I was a homeless heroin addict. I weighed 50 pounds less than I do today, I had hepatitis C, and I was dying.” One night, the police came to the restaurant where Eric worked as a cook and arrested him on a drug-related charge. That night in jail, he came to the realization that his habit would kill him unless he found a way to control it.

Fast forward to his early forties: from the TED stage, Eric shares the happy news that that night was the last time he ever used heroin.

Progress toward recovery depends on many factors, and no two paths to it are exactly alike. But the eloquence and solid common-sense, Eric brought to his own recovery journey are remarkable—and his use of strategies from the classic board game is nothing if not inspired! The 13-minute address is well worth listening to in full, but here are some takeaways:

  • Take small continents first. In Risk, you’re out to conquer the world (sound like any personal resolutions you can remember striving for?). But to get there, it helps to rack up some successes right away, even if they only take you a little way in the direction of your goal.
  • Concentrate your armies. In other words, don’t spread your energies too thin by trying to tackle everything at once. Build from a solid foundation, one that offers advantages for the next stages of the effort. In Eric’s case, which meant making sobriety the top—and for a time, the only—priority in his life.
  • Build alliances. One of the few things that can make substance use disorder more challenging is facing it alone. Sadly, that’s exactly how many of us contend with the disease. But statistical studies reveal that by telling supportive Loved Ones what you’re setting out to do, you increase your chances of success. Accountability—and a few affirming words from a trusted listener—really do make a difference.

There’s much more packed into this brief address. Have a listen.


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In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)