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The Underappreciated Art of Taking Risks

One stimulating way to add more meaning and excitement to life

Without risk there is no progress. No learning. No life.

“Deep in the sea are riches beyond compare. But if you seek safety, it is on the shore.”

– Saadi

They were starving. The enemy had surrounded the castle and blocked all supplies of food, hoping to starve them out.

Back in the days of castles, knights, sieges and such, an army had surrounded the impregnable castle Hochosterwitz (in present-day Austria) and had it under siege.1 The fortress was well defended and the siege lasted for months as the attacking army hoped to starve the occupants out of their stronghold.

But as time passed, the army was getting restless and the commander had other pressing things to do. What they didn’t know was that the defenders inside the castle were down to their last ox and last barrel of barley.

What would you have done if you were the defending commander? Extreme situations can (if we don’t panic) call forth wonderful creative solutions and elicit the very best of calculated risk taking.

The commander of the besieged castle did something that must have made everyone around him despair of his sanity.

The risk that saved the day

The commander of the besieged castle had the one remaining ox slaughtered and its guts filled with the last remaining barley, then had it thrown over the side of the castle. Now they had no food at all! The cupboards were completely bare, all thanks to the commander!

But on seeing what was clearly a symbolic message that the castle occupants had more than enough food – so much, in fact, that they could afford to throw some of it away! – the army became discouraged. Almost immediately, they pulled up their tent stakes and left. After all, they’d already been waiting for months for the castle occupants to run out of food – now it looked as if they’d have to wait many more months!

Doing the opposite of what was expected saved the day for the occupants of the stronghold. To me, the commander of the fortress showed genuine artistry. Creativity can manifest anywhere, and sometimes what seems to be an indefensible risk at the time is actually, in hindsight, the least risky thing to do.

As a matter of fact, maybe there wasn’t much of a risk in discarding the last scraps of food in such a way. They would have been doomed anyway had they not thrown away the supplies. But I think it’s a great example of a calculated risk. One where the possible downside isn’t much worse than what you’re already facing, but the potential upside is a whole lot better.

But what about you? Yes, you!

What risk taking says about you

Do you take risks? I don’t mean dumb ones like drink driving, blowing all your savings at the roulette wheel, or skydiving sans parachute. I mean what we might call wise risks.

I found some intriguing research showing that more intelligent people tend to take more calculated risks than average folk.2 People who take chances and make quick decisions were found to have more white matter – the material that connects and transmits signals between the different parts of the brain – than their more risk-averse peers.

So if you do sometimes take more risks than those around you, it may be because you are more open to experience (and therefore learning) than most, or that you are simply brighter. But I wonder whether taking risks can in turn help make us smarter.

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Dagfinn Moe, co-author of the aforementioned study, suggests that risk taking is underappreciated by society in general.

“Daring and risk-willingness activate and challenge the brain’s capacity and contribute towards learning, coping strategies and development,” he said. “They can stimulate behaviour in the direction of higher levels of risk-taking in people already predisposed to adapt to cope optimally in such situations. We must stop regarding daring and risk-willingness simply as undesirable and uncontrolled behaviour patterns.”

The more challenges we take on, as long as we don’t totally overwhelm ourselves, perhaps the smarter and better able we are to take risks. This is why teaching children that all risks are hugely threatening is, ironically, horribly risky.

The dangers of excessive risk aversion

Avoidance of risk is a risk in itself.

The child never exposed to diverse pathogens may fail to develop a strong immune system.3 The young adult continually supplied with ‘trigger warnings’ may never find the fortitude to take risks for themselves, or be exposed to anything that contradicts their worldview.4 The person who won’t ‘risk’ going out to meet new people may live a life of unintended isolation.

There are many risks to never taking risks.

The risk of keeping that ox and barley is ultimately greater than converting it from food to an unequivocal and confident message to the enemy that “we ain’t going nowhere, Buster!”

Taking a new class, travelling, or embarking on a new life can all seem overwhelmingly risky. And sometimes it genuinely may not be the right time to try something new.

But the risk of always ‘playing it safe’, keeping hold of your sparse barley and single ox as it were, may be far greater than getting out there and doing something bold. Without risk there is no progress. No learning. No life.

So why are many people so risk averse?

The fear of losing versus the hope of gain

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist interested in behavioural economics, won a Nobel Prize for his Prospect Theory, which describes people’s natural aversion to risk. Put simply, for many people may fear losing 100 dollars to the point that their fear eclipses the promise of winning 200.

Potential losses loom larger than potential gains in all kinds of situations for all kinds of people. For example, “What if I make a fool of myself?” can easily become more of a focus than “How can I make my speech wonderful?”

According to 20 years of research led by Columbia University’s Tory Higgins, many (though certainly not all) people may be risk averse not just because of trait neuroticism, but because of a desire not to ‘rock the boat’ – in other words, to keep the status quo intact.5

Of course, as they say, the one constant is change. But it can be tempting simply to want a ‘quiet life’, and for some people that’s fine… until such time as life comes to them, with all its noise and disruption.

So many people are risk averse – more focused on what they (imagine they) may lose than what they could gain. But not everybody, of course, is like that. If they were, nothing much would ever happen! No one would achieve anything; life would be stagnant.

Some of us are more attuned to focusing on and achieving goals and open to experience, unfettered by the fear of a bit of risk. But what are the traits that characterize risk-averse people – and do they describe you?

The cautious and the brave

Risk-averse folk behave and feel distinctly differently to more reward-focused people.6 For example, they are more interested in reliability in the products they buy than luxury or ‘coolness’, they work more slowly, and they prefer conservative investments over riskier but potentially higher-reward ones.

According to other research, by Francesca Gino and Joshua Margolis at Harvard University, risk-averse people are more rule bound. They fear rule breaking much more than more cavalier types, perhaps even if the rules don’t make sense to them.7 This may, I suspect, include unwritten rules like the ‘right and wrong things to say’ in social settings, or the type of gift you should buy someone.

Rule breaking isn’t always unequivocally ‘bad’. If Robin Hood hadn’t broken a few rules (okay, laws!), he couldn’t have given to the poor.

Of course, chronic rule breaking purely for the sake of it may be extremely counterproductive, and I’m not suggesting anyone rake up a criminal record. But I’m not just talking about bureaucracy or legal rules here. The fact is, we become bound by self-imposed rules too:

  • “I really shouldn’t say that!”
  • “Who am I to start a business!”
  • “I can’t just go and ask that person for a date!”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and we all need some wins in life – if only to keep our hormones healthy!

Get more wins into your life

When we have a victory, even a small one, our testosterone levels rise, while after a defeat, they drop – and this is true for both men and women.8 The effect is less pronounced in women than in men, which – along with women’s lower average testosterone level – is why testosterone is often (wrongly) seen as the ‘male hormone’.

So what are the benefits of increased testosterone?

Higher testosterone levels increase our self-confidence (and, in turn, openness to new experiences or risk taking), energy, and sex drive; and improve our memory, focus, sleep, and mood. They are also associated with a lower risk of diabetes and heart attack, reduced body fat, and increased muscle mass and strength.9

Testosterone has been associated with impulsivity and aggression, but the ‘crazy’ risk taking among testosterone-filled young men may have more to do with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps us appreciate the potential consequences of our actions) than testosterone levels.10

Those who feel ‘defeated’ by life probably have depleted testosterone. Conversely, preparing for a challenge, especially a competitive one, increases testosterone levels.11 (This has primarily been documented in men, though I suspect the same is true of women.) In turn, the thrill of winning increases a sense of status and competency and therefore further encourages ‘status-raising’ behaviours.

We seldom think of low self esteem as a ‘biological’ state, but all emotions exist within the chemical balance of brain and body. Feeling low down in the social hierarchy may both cause a sense of defeat and be caused by it. In other words, low testosterone levels may cause depression and low self-esteem, but in turn multiple perceived failures may lower testosterone levels.

What’s more, low self-esteem and depression may, for some at least, result in under-risk taking – a kind of hiding from life that, paradoxically, makes life feel harder.

Defeated by life?

Feeling one will inevitably fail, is a failure, or has failed; feeling defeated by life in general, is a depressive state and also characterizes low self-esteem.

The success that follows from hard work and risk taking will, I suspect, help raise our self-esteem and capacity to take further risks, which can in turn help raise our self-respect (people don’t like to think of themselves as cowardly) and status.

But for some, ‘status’ is a dirty word.

Certainly, it’s a value-laden word. Yet the need for a sense of status – to feel that we belong and are respected within society – is universal.

Status raising can be achieved through any kind of success, or even just the completion of a task. And the resulting sense of accomplishment or completion can, at least for a while, increase our testosterone levels and give us a dopamine hit (a natural ‘feel-good’ chemical) – which helps us seek out yet more challenges.

So we all need ‘wins’, and ‘wins’ brought about through some sacrifice (in time, money, or effort) and/or risk help raise self-esteem.

When people are numbed and paralyzed by depression, any activity or accomplishment might count as a ‘win’, because in the depths of depression even small things like going to the local store can seem like a risk. This is one reason why therapists set behavioural tasks for clients – to help them become less risk averse and more proactive.

For a depressed person, a ‘win’ in their day might be going for a walk around the block, completing some task they’d been putting off, or calling a friend they haven’t seen in a long time. Depression can make these activities feel like risks.

So a ‘win’ doesn’t have to mean triumphing in some major sporting championship or closing a million-dollar deal. A win on a given day may be completing your exercise routine, or writing a certain number of words in your dissertation or novel. As we get used to one level of ‘winning’, we then move on to being able to go for bigger wins, to take more ‘risks’ – perhaps only to discover they weren’t risks at all.

Inviting success into your life

Success may be associated with certain kinds of intelligence, diligence, and certainly conscientiousness, but – perhaps more than we realise – also with the capacity and willingness to take risks.

After all, embarking on any new career or promising relationship or new business venture entails some risk. Some people and institutions try to eliminate all risk, as though that were possible. Because threat is attention grabbing, the media may also play a part in keeping our threat sensors ramped up and our risk capacities paralyzed.

But often the greater but less obvious risk lies in trying to avoid risk at all costs.

Any new career, relationship, or business venture entails some risk. Some people try to eliminate all risk, as though that were possible. But often the greater but less obvious risk lies in trying to avoid risk at all costs. Click to Tweet

How to gently introduce more calculated risk

Having a sense of purpose and meaning in life has been shown to increase longevity and wellbeing.12

I suspect it may also correlate with increased risk taking. When we feel we are serving not just ourselves but a greater cause, it becomes easy to miss what otherwise might have seemed like a personal risk because our eyes are firmly fixed upon the objective.

So developing a strong sense of purpose above and beyond one’s own assumed interests can help us take calculated risks more readily, because we are serving that bigger purpose.

So we can:

  1. Focus on a bigger purpose.
  2. Think about what there might be to gain.
  3. Think about what, really, there is to lose and how you would mitigate any loss (and remember, mistakes can also be wins of a sort, because we learn from them). When people say things like, “Ah, well, I’ll never see them again so it doesn’t really matter what they think, and who knows? This could turn out really well!” they are using this strategy.
  4. Learn to trust, at least some of the time, your gut instinct.
  5. Introduce small ‘risks’ into your day so that you avoid falling, bit by bit, into a life of timidity – like the slowly boiled frog who doesn’t notice his rising temperature because it’s so gradual.

Little risks spice up our lives and increase fun and explorative creativity.

Humour, jokes, ideas, and new ways of living and thinking all require what can seem, at a certain point, like risks.

And yet to live a riskless life is to live no life at all. A grey, spartan, uniformly dull existence in which the purpose is to get safely to death without anything much happening.

So, go on, I dare you to dare sometimes! Because life, if I can risk a cliché, is not a spectator sport.

Watch Mark Do Therapy With Real Clients

If you’re interested to see how Mark applies his particular philosophy of life to his psychotherapy practice, you can watch over 100 live client sessions in our ‘Netflix for Therapists’, Uncommon Practitioners TV.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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