Take smarter risks, not just safe ones.

Are you too tentative? Here are four ways to take smarter risks, not just safe ones.

When making decisions, most people like to think they are pretty good at weighing up the pros and cons and choosing the smartest course of action.  Unfortunately though, when it comes to assessing potential risks, most people are lousy at it.

If you’ve ever engaged in a meaningful conversation with someone in the final chapter of their life (a very worthwhile thing to do!) and asked them about the risks they took, or didn’t take, most will tell you they wish they’d settled less and spoken up more; that they’d been more bold and less cautious. Likewise if you look back on your life until now, odds are that you probably wish you’d trusted yourself more often, and been less reticent to make changes and taken chances.

By studying activity in the brain, neuro-researchers have discovered that we are innately wired toward caution, and away from situations that involve taking a risk.  As I wrote in my latest book Stop Playing Safe, the primal emotion of fear drives us to be overly tentative; to stick with the familiar path of greatest certainty when veering from it would serve our interests so much better.   So consider whatever challenges, choices or changes you’re facing right now, and before you decide what you’ll do – or won’t do – take into account these four ways that you’re wired to avoid risk.

1. We over-estimate the probability of something going wrong.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman found that when weighing a risk, potential losses tend to loom larger than potential gains. That is, we tend to focus more on what might go wrong – what we might lose or sacrifice – than what might go right. Because our imaginations tend to magnify what we focus on, we often misjudge (and over-estimate) the likelihood of it occurring. Yet the reality is that the risk of something not working out is rarely as high as we estimate, and the odds of it working out well are often far greater.

2. We exaggerate the consequences of what might happen if things don’t go to plan.

I call this ‘catastrophizing’ – the phenomena whereby we conjure up dire and dramatic worst-case scenario images in our mind’s eye. Rather than assume that we would act quickly to head off or mitigate a situation if things started going off track, we imagine everything spiraling shockingly out of control while we passively stand by. We terrify ourselves with images of destitution, being shunned by our family, ostracized by our peers and forever shamed by our failure. Okay, maybe I go too far. Maybe you don’t ‘catastrophize’ quite so dramatically. But the point is, we are neurologically wired to exaggerate how bad things could be if things don’t work out, and we fail to factor in our ability to intervene and ward off further impact.

3. We underestimate our ability to handle the consequences of risk. 

How often do we fail to judge our own capacity for risks – like taking on a bigger role or pursuing a loftier goal – accurately?  In my experience, far too often.  Particularly for women, who are most likely to undervalue themselves and fall prey to the ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ Too often we let our self-doubt about whether we have what it takes to succeed get the better of us. The result is that we often avoid taking on new challenges or proactively pursuing new opportunities because we don’t sufficiently trust in our ability to rise to the challenges they involve.

4. We downplay the cost of inaction.

Professor Philip Bobbitt coined the term ‘Parmenides Fallacy’ to explain the human tendency to discount or deny the cost of inaction.  We’re very good to convincing ourselves that the safest course is the smartest, telling ourselves “My (job, relationship, situation) really isn’t so bad, clinging on to misguided hope that “things will just sort themselves out.”  In reality, delaying action exacts a steeper and steeper toll. That is,  when we fail to address our problems – in work, love or life –  they don’t usually improve over time, rather they worsen.

So how do you overcome your innate aversion to risk and identify smart risks from foolish ones?  Start by reflecting on these questions:

• Where am focusing more on what I have to lose than on what I have to gain?

• How might I be underestimating my abilities and selling out on my future potential?

• If I do nothing, how might my inaction and sticking with the status quo cost me one year from now? What about five years from now?

• What would I do if I were being really courageous and trust myself more fully?  

Your answers may not be pointing you toward an easier future, but they are most certainly pointing you toward a bigger one that expands your opportunities and deepens your experience of life and yourself.  Will there be risks involved? Of course!  But no worthwhile endeavor has ever been achieved without them.

History has shown that we fail far more from timidity than we do from over daring. And if you’re not sure about that, just take some time to sit down with someone in the twilight of their life and ask them what they regret more – the things they’ve done, or the things they didn’t do.

This post first appeared at www.Forbes.com

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Margie Warrell

Margie Warrell has stepped out of her comfort zone many times since her childhood growing up one of seven children on a farm in rural Australia. Along the way she’s learned a lot about courage and daring boldly. An internationally recognized leader in human potential – Margie is passionate about empowering people to think bigger about what is possible for them, engage in braver conversations and lead more purposeful lives. Margie is the bestselling author of Stop Playing Safe (2013) and Find Your Courage (2009). Connect via Twitter or subscribe to her Live Bravely newsletter.

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