When is the last time you did something that you regard as extraordinary, something that took you out of your comfort zone and surpassed your limits?
If asked that question, most people will just scratch their heads, give you a puzzled look and go back to living their low-key, boring lives. They will just continue their endless cycle of going to work, coming back and watching TV, complaining, and then going to sleep.
They will never rise above their own shadow to shake things up, to redefine their boundaries and surpass their limits. Their lives will have no meaning and never achieve anything great. On their death bed, they will look back into their past and try to remember their greatest accomplishments. They will see a whole lot of nothing.
Whether it is out of laziness or fear, people in today’s world are very comfortable in their daily routines. They have lost something that has defined humanity since its very beginning: the ability to take a risk.
Prehistoric Man had to be a risk-taker by default
Throughout history, every human had to take risks merely just to survive. Your ancestors had this ability and the fact that you are here proves that they were successful risk-takers.
Back in prehistory, if a man wanted to see the light of another day, he had to push himself to his limits every single day. He would get up early in the morning, eat a hearty breakfast and then go check up on his hunting tools and weapons.
These had to be in top condition. Maybe, he would try to improve their performance by changing their shape a bit, chipping a stone here, tying a knot there. Or maybe, he would add a new weapon to his arsenal.
All this change could be quite risky. Maybe the new design was not so effective, or he did not master the new weapon that well. This could be the difference between catching his prey and having something for dinner and not. This might sometimes even be the difference between his own life and death.
However, no matter whether the man was an innovator or stuck to his tried and tested tools and strategies, he still had to go out and hunt. He had to go into the wild, use his knowledge and instincts, and face the forces of nature.
Every time he was out there, he was facing considerable risk. Maybe that buffalo he was trying to spear decided to charge him, maybe there was a cave lion hiding behind that rock, or maybe he would slip and fall off that rocky ledge he was perched on. Yet, he had to take those risks. It was a matter of life and death.
Fast forward to today. The man gets up in the morning, eats a breakfast, but instead of checking up on his tools and weapons, he goes to check his e-mail. Then he commutes to work and sits crouched behind his desk, staring at the computer all day. His food is provided for him and he does not even have to lift a finger.
If this man were put in the same environment that his ancestor lived in, it is almost guaranteed that he would become minced meat and feature as the main course of some sabre-toothed tiger’s dinner.
Why are people afraid to take a risk in the modern world?
There are various factors behind people in the modern world not being able to take a risk. Some have to do with nature, while others with nurture.
People in general are wired to pay more attention to negative stimuli than to positive ones. Research indicates that this bias for negative information over positive information occurs very early in the process of evaluation of outside stimuli.
Most humans have a negativity bias. This negativity bias not only causes them to more often see the negative part of the situation, but also to behave in a more risk-averse way, especially if the situation evokes the emotion of fear in them.
Another problem might also be your genetics. There are several studies that show that certain genes most likely affect your risk-seeking behavior. This means that some people might be wired to be risk-averse, while others might be wired to be risk-seeking.
One study showed that the gene DRD4 (sounds like R2D2 doesn’t it? 🙂 ) is associated with novelty seeking. This means if you possess this gene, you are more likely to be a risk-taker, while if you don’t possess it, then you are more likely to be risk-averse.
However another study disputed this and found the relationship between DRD4 and novelty seeking to be uncertain. Instead the study pointed to a relationship between the -521C/T gene and novelty seeking.
So at the moment some studies have shown that there might be a potential effect of certain genes on risk-seeking behavior in individuals, but which ones these are is not well understood.
This might not play such a big role, however, as biology teaches us that it is usually a combination of genes that promote certain behaviors and not individual genes. The awakening of these genes might in many cases be mediated by the outside environment.
Several studies have demonstrated that it is usually not the family, but the outside environment that has the greatest influence on the risk-seeking behavior of an individual.
The fact that risk-seeking has declined among individuals might, paradoxically, have to do with the fact that our safety and standards of living have risen sharply and are the highest in history. This makes people comfortable and averse to shaking up the status quo.
To quote Tory Higgins, a researcher at Columbia University: “it might be more accurate to say that some of us are particularly risk-averse, not because we are neurotic, paranoid, or even lacking in self-confidence, but because we tend to see our goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo and keep things running smoothly.”
Because of this, people are very reluctant to shake things up. People will complain, but at the end of the day, they are comfortable in their ways, there is no outside stimulus to force them to change and so keep doing the same things over and over again.
Many people will instead turn to other things like drug-use, drinking or smoking to get their fix.
The modern man takes no risks. Today we just watch guys like the Navy SEALS, MMA fighters, or survival experts on TV do incredible things and wish we could be like them.
Yet the average guy does nothing in order to fulfil that wish. Instead, he just goes to the fridge and gets another beer!
Our society has turned into a spectator society, where guys watch others do stuff, instead of doing things themselves. Most guys lack many fundamental skills.
Back in the day, all our ancestors had those skills. Unfortunately today, we are out of touch with nature. This causes us not only to have no basic survival skills, but it has also dampened our appetite for risk-taking.
People don’t achieve anything great, since even though their environment is very safe (and thereby it is cheaper to take a risk than ever before), they have lost the appetite for taking even a small risk. This might include things like working on a new project or learning new skills.
Risk leads to success (but also failure)
How did every successful man achieve his success? By taking a risk.
How to take a risk
You know that you need to shake things up, but how do you go about it? How do you start taking risks (smart ones)?
1) You have to reframe your mind
There is a Czech (and Slovak) saying: “risk is profit (or gain)” (it rhymes in those languages “risk je zisk“). This means that by taking a risk, you have the potential for gain.
You need to reframe your mind to see risks not as a potential danger, but instead as an opportunity. If you don’t take a risk, you will never gain anything.
You should realize that playing it safe is not always the best option. In the future, you will probably regret many things you did not do. It is better to try and fail, then to not try at all.
Oftentimes, the fact that you fail will teach you some valuable skills and lessons that you can apply in the future. Most successful people started off with many failures before succeeding. You need to stop seeing failure as negative, but instead as a valuable part of the learning process.
A study from 1995 showed that this type of reframe is what is behind the thinking of successful entrepreneurs. They are risk-averse just like rest of the population, yet they have learned to think about risk differently from the average Joe:
“Results of a risk propensity survey of 92 members of a business organization show that while entrepreneurs did not consider themselves more apt to take risks than others, they did perceive more strengths than weaknesses, more opportunities than threats, and more potential for improvement than for deterioration. Thus, entrepreneurs should not be characterized by their risk-taking behavior, but by their likelihood to cognitively assess business situations as positive opportunities.“
Failures and successes will help you learn to overcome other problems in the future. Whenever you are facing a new problem, always think of similar things you have had to do in the past. What worked and what didn’t? Apply these lessons to solving your problem.
If you apply the principle of continuous improvement, then each time you face a new problem, you will diminish your chance of failure and increase your chance of success.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison
2) Work on overcoming the limiting beliefs that are holding you back
Sometimes, there are negative limiting beliefs that are holding you back. Things like fear, feelings of being inadequate or beliefs of something being impossible, can hold you back. You need to address these limiting beliefs, find out why you have them, and then try to overcome them.
There is a certain group of negative people that blames the rest of the world for their problems. If you are one of them, you need to reframe yourself. This type of belief is holding you back and preventing you from changing. Instead accept responsibility for your own problems and start working on the things that you can change.
3) Don’t procrastinate
Start doing things now. Don’t put them off. Learn while doing the activity. If you keep on postponing doing something, chances are you will never get to it.
4) Accept that there is a possibility of failure
You need to accept that taking a risk means that there is a possibility of failure. This is inherent in taking risks. However, if you reframe your mind and think of failures as learning opportunities, you will start dreading failures much less.
Furthermore, the possibility of failure can be mitigated by taking smart risks. Always be rational about the choices you make and always have a backup plan.
5) See the benefits that making a change will give you
In order to be driven in pursuing your dreams, you need to keep in mind the benefits that such a change will bring you. This will keep you motivated and push you towards taking that risk you have been hesitating on.
6) Prepare for potential obstacles and think of ways to overcome them
In order to lessen the chance of failure, try to preview some obstacles you might face and come up with strategies to overcome them. Oftentimes, you can lessen the risk of these obstacles by breaking up the task into smaller subtasks.
7) Think of the worst thing that could happen
If you are paralyzed by fear which is preventing you from taking action, think of the worst thing that could happen if you take the action and what is the chance of this happening. Usually this is not so bad in reality.
8) Don’t let others keep you down
Many times, you are prevented from taking action by the words of others. Don’t let these get to you, but stay strong and continue with whatever you want to do.
9) Be optimistic
Last of all, always stay optimistic (but realistic). Take a leap of faith.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Steve Jobs
Don’t take stupid risks
There is a very paradoxical situation that is happening in the modern world. While most people have become much more risk-averse in most situations and have shunned positive risk-taking behavior, a minority has engaged in reckless risk-seeking.
There are some professions where being reckless is encouraged and this has had a negative effect on the rest of the world. Many bankers took unnecessary risk trying to rack up record profits, which has resulted in the current economic crisis.
Many others behave in reckless behavior in their own home. The point is not to take any type of risk, the point is to take smart risks.
Taking smart risks involves evaluating the pros and cons. There is a need to have a backup plan. When you jump out of the plane, you should have a parachute and then the parachute itself should also have an emergency parachute in case the first one fails. Unfortunately, the way some people take risks is the same as if they were jumping out of the plane without a parachute.
Learn how to be a rational thinker in order to prevent yourself from taking action based on logical fallacies. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner, psychologist and researcher on decision making, has stated that people are very bad at statistics, judging probabilities and the riskiness of a situation. This leads them to be bad at making the right choice.
“How do people make the judgments and how do they assign decision weights? We start from two simple answers, then qualify them. Here are the oversimplified answers: People overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events. People overweight unlikely events in their decisions.”
You need to stay disciplined when taking risks. Learn to judge causes and effects. Ask yourself what will happen when you take a certain step. Remember to check whether all your assumptions make sense. If you do these things, then it is much more likely that you will be making a smart risk.
And don’t forget, the decision to go for it and taking a risk is only the start of the entire journey. You will still need to do the work.
Action plan for right now
1) What is something that you always wanted to do, but haven’t done yet?
2) What is stopping you from doing it?
3) How can you make this dream a reality? What things do you need to do?
4) Make a plan of how to achieve your dream
5) Start executing
Taking risks will lead to a more fulfilling life. Not taking a risk is actually also a risk in itself, a risk of leading a life that is boring and depressing.
Risk-taking is one of the characteristics of a Renaissance Man. Men were made for taking risks. Change your mindset and reclaim your heritage.