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Risking Growth

Have you noticed that when you have an opportunity for almost anything, it’s normal for your brain to try to convince you to play it safe? It will tell you that you can't succeed or that trying something new will likely not be worth it. Truth is, risking doesn’t have to be reckless, and avoiding all risk is a recipe for anxiety.

Too often we base our decisions on emotion and assume our fear level and risk level are even and our fear should be followed. But our fears are usually unreasonable, and they are handicapping. Learning to take healthy risks can open new doors and improve your life.

Of course, not all risks are good risks. You only want to take the carefully considered risks that can truly improve your life, not just choosing what feels good in the moment.

Resisting risks is understandable. The older you get, the fewer risks you tend to take. The decision-making regions of the average adult brain are composed of 80% excitatory cells (desiring risk) and 20% inhibitory cells (resisting risk). On average, the cells responsible for inhibition don’t work at full capacity until your mid-twenties. That tells us a lot about adolescent choices and behavior. There is also evidence that links the decrease in dopamine levels we experience as we age with a decreased interest in taking risks.

But it’s more than just physical. Other life events can impact our willingness to take risks. New parents now have another person’s well-being to look out for. People looking toward retirement may want to be more careful about impacting their savings. A major loss in life can make us want to conserve everything that matters.

Studies show that a person’s past and upbringing can impact their risk-taking capacities, making some struggle to take risks while others may fight being reckless with risk. Understanding where you fall on the scale can help you better consider future decisions. Look at past decisions, ones that went well and ones that didn’t, as well as opportunities you feel you let pass by. The more experience we have in certain situations, generally the faster and more accurately we can evaluate our options.

Your personality traits can also help indicate whether or not you’d be willing to take risks. Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist, gave us a list of personality traits that she sees in people who are successful at getting out of their comfort zone and embracing risk and change.

Solid ego strength: The person doesn’t have to be “right” all of the time, nor need to have things always go their way.

Capacity to self-examine and be accountable for one’s own mistakes. They can take an honest and painful look within and own up to an error. They can make a genuine, heartfelt apology.

Humor: The ability to laugh at yourself and the natural mistakes everyone makes from time to time.

Pain threshold: Pain is usually the change motivator. It’s what drives a person to seek change.

Reasonably healthy communication skills: The person can generally make their feelings, needs, and wants known.

Determination and will: The person is usually not passive. They don’t give up easily; they persevere.

Two strategies can help you if you find yourself quite averse to risk. First, balance your emotions with logic.Typically we think our fear is directly related to the level of the risk. We think the scarier it feels the riskier it must be. But think it through. Driving a car probably doesn't feel risky, but giving a speech in front of a crowd may seem like a huge risk. But when you calmly consider it without giving in to the feeling of fear, you know your risk is much higher driving, even though it is the thing you feel comfortable doing. Before you talk yourself out of doing something that feels risky, spend a few minutes thinking about the actual level of risk you are up against. Ask yourself, "What risk do I actually face? How can I handle it if it doesn't work out?"

Then, take intentional steps to increase your chances of success. Many things can decrease the risk you face. You could practice your speech diligently. Wait until you build up some steady income on your pet project before you quit your day job. Rather than spending time trying to decrease your fear about a risk, put your energy into increasing your chances of success.

Own that you may still feel afraid when you take the risk—and that's okay. Facing your fears is key to building the mental muscle you must have to succeed over the long haul. You’ll get better each time with calculating risk. Taking risks doesn’t mean succeeding every time, and that’s okay. Even failure is critical to your growth. Many of life’s greatest achievements require going outside of your comfort zone. Stephen McCranie rightly says, “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” Failure makes us stronger and more resilient.

There is no exact science for successful risks—that’s why we have the term “risk.” But there are steps you can take to approach risk-taking from a healthy place to give yourself the best odds of a positive outcome. These tips from experts can help.

Know the “why.” Whether you’re taking on risk or avoiding it, the key to successful decision-making is knowing why you’re doing what you are doing.

Open up to unseen possibilities. Being a risk-taker can help you stand out in many situations, which could create new opportunities you hadn’t even thought of. Try not to take so much comfort in reliability and certainty that you take no action.

Practice on a smaller scale. Getting better at risk-taking, you must practice.

Some great exercises include the following:

  • Take small, daily risks

  • Talk about what you want

  • Journal about what holds you back

  • Visualize what you want in great detail

  • Role play as the person who’s already achieved it

Commit to a bucket list. A time-limited bucket list (like for a month or a year) is such a good way to force yourself to try new things and take risks. Write down three to five things you'd really like to accomplish or try. Take the time to identify the steps you'd need to take to achieve that goal. Place this list somewhere it will regularly remind you. The more you are reminded, the more likely you are to do them.

Reframe your fears. Move beyond possible negative outcomes and think about the positive outcomes possible. We can reframe our thoughts and look at them from a new perspective.

Calculate risks and ask for help. Become informed before you make a decision. Do the research and find information, then create a pros and cons list that touches on everything from the very best outcome to the worst. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Don’t overthink it. Founder and president of Suburban Jungle, Alison Bernstein, says that overanalyzing situations can be detrimental and lead “to analysis paralysis ... with the world changing so fast, it is important ... to stay nimble and at the ready to embrace a new course.”

Read your emotions and reactions. Your body doesn't really distinguish well between anxiety and excitement, and it could be you are missing the opportunity for something exhilarating. Make sure it’s not just a learned behavior from someone else.

When in doubt, sleep on it. Stress and anxiety could hamper your ability to fairly assess a risk. Stay in tune with the wisdom and cues your body provides. If you’re really torn, sleep on it and evaluate your options again with a clearer mind.

Study your failures. Not everything will go according to plan—that’s just the nature of life. What’s more important is what you do after a perceived failure. Flip the script on failure and don’t let it defeat you. Learn from it for new challenges. Resilience is a huge part of a successful life.

Embrace change and adapt. Humans are meant to grow and change. The more you lean in to change, the better life gets. Most decisions aren’t permanent. If you don’t like where you end up, you can always make some changes. You can be scared, but you can do it anyway.

Taking a risk to achieve a goal requires courage to face the fear of uncertainty. No matter the outcome, we grow through the process and become more resilient and confident.

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