The Art Of Taking Risks

The Art of Taking Risks

By Jane Pauley

Your kids are growing up or are grown, you’ve earned seniority at work, and you’ve got a great house, a comfortable life. But here’s the rub: You’ve been doing the same thing for too long and you’re itching for a change. Maybe you dream about opening a bicycle rental shop on Kauai, growing vegetables for your organic farm stand in the country or simply reading to kids in inner city schools. You want to do something different, but as soon as you think about really making a change, you freeze with fear.

Risk picture hike“We’re always worried when we think about risk. We’ll say, ‘What if it doesn’t work out?'” says Margie Warrell, a life coach and author of Stop Playing Safe: Rethink Risk, Unlock the Power of Courage, Achieve Outstanding Success. “People will make excuses. ‘My job isn’t so bad.’ ‘My marriage is ok.’ But living life in the comfort zone is very boring.”

It’s hard for individuals to take risks later in life. People in their 40s and 50s are established in their careers. They make a good salary and are accustomed to some freedoms within the workplace. They often have a home, a spouse, a retirement plan. “These folks are not starting out, so there’s more to lose,” says Warrell. Many of us are so nervous about making changes in our lives that we’d rather live unhappily than upset the status quo.

Still, Warrell likes to remind her clients that taking risks often comes with a big payout: You realize that it’s within your power to change your life. She shares the story of how she and her husband packed up their home in Australia the day after 9/11 and moved their 3-year old, 2-year old and 5-week old baby to the U.S. “It was one of the best decisions we ever made,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have known that if I didn’t do it.”

Change nourishes the spirit. When you do something new, you’re suddenly meeting new people, having new conversations, and growing and evolving as a person—or as a family. The quality of our relationships are determined by the kinds of conversations we have in them, so if your marriage or friendships are feeling stagnant, it may be that you’re feeling stagnant. Plus, at least one study shows that taking risks may actually boost happiness. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City found that people who take risks experience a rush of dopamine, a chemical in the body that makes us feel good, every time we have a novel experience.

We’re not suggesting you become an adrenaline junkie. You don’t need a passport to have a sense of adventure. “Instead, think about how to build your courage muscles,” says Warrell. She’s seen people in their 50s who put their career on hold to go back to school. One of her clients sold her house to come up with the money to open up her dream marketing business, “It’s now thriving,” says Warrell. Many folks she’s worked with have ended unhappy long-term relationships, which has freed up their energies for more positive pursuits.

How can you assess what risks are worth taking? Warrell says that we’re all innately wired to overestimate the size of risk. “We always assume that things aren’t going to go well,” she says. “We never hear a voice in our head encouraging us.” First, she says, push that fear mongering voice out of your head—the one that doesn’t believe in you and tells you that you’re definitely going to fail no matter what. Instead, try to focus on what you have to gain from the risk. What kind of happiness might this change bring to your life? (Obviously, be smart about your choice: If the risk you’re considering could leave your family destitute, then it’s probably not a good move.)

As we’re considering risk, many of us also underestimate our own ability to cope with change. Warrell knows one female executive who turned down a big promotion a few times because she didn’t think she could do the job. A few years later, when she finally accepted the higher position, the woman was shocked by how successful she was. The only person stopping her from following her dreams was herself.

Still, the most effective way to weigh a risk may be to ask yourself: “Will I regret not doing this?” Is it something that I’ll think about years from now and wish I’d done differently?

Says Warrell: “Fortune favors the bold. People who have the richest best lives are the ones who stepped outside of their comfort zone.”


S² Tip

Those who step outside their comfort zones often find richer lives and more nourished spirits.


Success Story

By the end of her twenties, J.K. Rowling was a divorced, unemployed single parent on welfare. After being rejected by eight publishers, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published right before her 32nd birthday and quickly became a best-seller.


In Another’s Words…

“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.”

– Denis Waitley