Take Risks to Take Your Life to the Next Level
One of life’s biggest ironies is how often people complain about their circumstances, yet rarely do anything about them. It’s not that they don’t have good intentions, or the desire for change isn’t great. It’s that change is scary and risky. Even when we’re unhappy with our current situation, we are familiar with it. Change is just so unknown!
For this reason, we often miss opportunities, even when they are staring us right in the face. Let me share with you a story about my client, Laurie. Frustrated and burnt out from a very stressful job, Laurie found herself with little energy or time to work on her wellness goals.
Working in the face of constant deadlines led to lots of eating on the run, convenience foods and stress munching. Extraordinarily long hours made getting to the gym difficult. The only enjoyment Laurie got from her work was the huge paycheck she received at the end of the week. Of course, she had no time to spend it on entertainment or shopping. Although her savings was growing, her happiness was declining rapidly.
The one bright spot in Laurie’s week was the volunteer work she did with underprivileged children on Saturday mornings. Despite the hectic schedule she kept, she never missed that appointment. She also served on the organization’s board, made it to every meeting and did all the bookkeeping for them.
I was fascinated that although she complained about having too much on her plate, Laurie never entertained the idea of giving up her volunteer work. It was the one place she got to use her strengths, forget her daily concerns, and have fun!
Laurie and I began coaching around the idea of looking for another job. As so many others, Laurie had a vision of a better way, even a clear picture of what she would need to get there, but she was so often frozen in her progression. At times, she was desperate to switch gears, and yet sometimes ambivalent about making the change.
The more we talked about it, the more her confusion and worry mounted. What if I can’t find a job that pays as well as this one? Could I make do with less? What if I think the new job sounds great, and it turns out to be just as stressful as this one? “What ifs” were keeping Laurie exactly where she was–except now, on top of everything, she was feeling frustrated and annoyed at herself for being “too scared” to try something new.
Laurie’s story is not unusual. Why is change so difficult? Why do we fear, rather than embrace, taking a risk? And can we find a way to forge new territories that seem to promise, but can’t guarantee, a better life?
Let’s take a look at why we hesitate to change, and so often spend more time thinking rather than doing anything about it.
Most of us lead lives filled with routine. We get up at a particular time, get ready for our day, and embark about the myriad of responsibilities we need to attend to. We don’t give much thought to them; we just go through the motions getting things done, crossing them off our lists and then moving on to the next. When thoughts such as, “Is this all there is?” or “I’m bored, and want a change,” creep in, we know it’s time to look for new opportunities.
At this point, we spend a great deal of time dreaming of what we would like to be different. Whether it’s losing weight, starting a new job, finding romance, or finally writing that book, we are too busy to stop and figure out how to get there. We’re dreaming–not planning–and we know that all change requires work, the thought of which is simply exhausting.
If that’s not enough, we worry. What if we go through all the work to make a change, and it doesn’t work out? Or even worse, what if it’s not what we want after all? Edwin Locke, one of the foremost researchers in goal-setting, states that the No. 1 thing that stands in the way of goal attainment is fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of the unknown, fear of making the wrong decision, looking foolish, being embarrassed and so on.
Combine that fear of risk with a lack of energy to work toward our goals, and a lack of confidence in our abilities, and it’s no wonder we stay locked in our old habits and routines despite our unhappiness.
So, why bother striving for new opportunities, or working to change a current situation that’s not optimal? What do we really have to gain?
Carolyn Adams-Miller, author of Creating Your Best Life List, says that when we engage in a well-planned risk, even if it’s scary, we immediately gain confidence, progress toward goal accomplishment and an increase in our life satisfaction. Even when the risk doesn’t turn out exactly as hoped, we still benefit. We learn that we can handle whatever curveballs life throws at us, and increase our resiliency (the ability to bounce back after disappointment). Together, these experiences increase our inner strength and lead us to be more willing to try new and different experiences in the future. And isn’t that what makes life exciting?
If you think about it, every choice we make in life holds some degree of risk. Each time we get into a car, fly in a plane, or cross the street, we are taking risks. When you approach that person who caught your eye, you risk being rejected, but might also meet the love of your life. If you choose an out-of-the-ordinary restaurant, you might not enjoy your meal. Or then again, it could be the best you’ve ever tasted.
Although these things are minor risks as compared to choices that can lead to life-changing events, Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., author of Curious? believes that most people overestimate risk, failure and danger and underestimate the value of being curious. He writes, “We can, and should, choose how we want to live our lives. Are we governed by fear and the need for safety, or are we willing to accept a bit of risk and anxiety in the pursuit of satisfaction, growth and meaning?”
Ready to start taking chances and being open to opportunities that come your way? Here are some ideas on how to strengthen your risk-taking muscle so you can replace fear and anxiety with curiosity, excitement and optimism!
- Take an inventory of the risks you have previously taken which have brought you positive outcomes: learning to drive, going to college, moving to a new city, or even starting a weight-loss plan. Ask yourself what you may have missed if you hadn’t embraced these opportunities.
- Begin to take small, low-risk chances whenever possible despite discomfort. Try a new exercise class at the gym, taste a different food or restaurant, wear a color you normally don’t, talk to a stranger while in line at the grocery store. Notice what happens.
- When faced with an opportunity that feels scary, make lists of both the possible positive outcomes and all of the possible negative outcomes. Does one outweigh the other? Make a choice that gives you the greatest chance of a positive outcome.
- Ask yourself, “What is the worst possible outcome?” of taking the risk you have in mind. Can you live with that? Know your risk tolerance. If the worst possible outcome feels unbearable, it’s probably not the right decision for you.
- Know your core values–the things that define who you are and what is most important to you. Examples of core values might be health, family, financial security, autonomy, or creativity. Ask yourself if the choice you are making supports your core values and will lead you closer to living in alignment with those values. If the answer is no, there’s a good chance you should walk away. But if yes, run fast towards that opportunity. (To define your personal core values, try this exercise from the Association of Collegiate Conference and Events.)
- When it comes to making important choices, do your homework. Get all the facts you need to make an educated decision. Speak to others who have made similar choices.
- Close your eyes and visualize yourself making a choice. Walk yourself though it in your mind’s eye as vividly as possible. Notice the sensations that come up in your body. Follow your gut!
- Put your choice to the “rocking chair test.” Fast forward to the future. Imagine yourself elderly and sitting in your rocking chair, thinking back over your life’s experiences. What is the story you hope to tell about this time in your life? Will you regret not taking this opportunity?
- Create a step-by-step plan to get where you want to go, and take the smallest, safest step forward. See what happens. If you are considering a new job, just start with sprucing up your resume. Thinking of going back to college? Sign up for just one course.
- If at all possible, try on your choice for size. Rent, rather than buy a new place in the city you want to move to; do volunteer work in the field you are considering switching to while still holding on to your current job; purchase a month’s membership to the new health club before committing to a year.
- Remember that for most choices, you can always go back to the way things were. Trying something new and not having it work out is usually better than always wondering, “What if?”
Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
A famous quote of Ayn Rand is, “The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity.”
And many, I’m not sure who first, have said, “When looking back over my life, I don’t regret the things I did, just the things I never did.”
Are you ready to embrace the mindset of an optimist, climb the ladder of success and eliminate future regrets? Then seize your next opportunity, and see what doors open for you!
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you what happened with Laurie. One morning when at her volunteer job, she mentioned to a fellow worker that she was considering looking for a new job. He then asked her, “Why aren’t you applying for the organization’s directorship position? You know we’ve been looking for someone to fill it for months!” Laurie did know about this and was shocked to discover her next best opportunity had been staring her in the face all along. She just hadn’t noticed.
Laurie got that job. Although she is making less money, her life-satisfaction has increased immensely. She moved to a smaller, but wonderful apartment closer to her new job, walks to and from work, has lost 30 pounds, and has free time to pursue a social life and hobbies. When asked if she regrets her decision, she will laugh and emphatically tell you, “Not one single, tiny bit!”
Kashdan, Ph.D., Todd. Curious?. (New York: Harper, 2009.)
Locke, Edwin and Gary Latham. Goal Setting: A Motivational Technique That Works! (New York: Prentice Hall Trade, 1984.)
Miller, MAPP, Caroline Adams and Dr. Michael B. Frisch. Creating Your Best Life. (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2009.)