The Three Benefits of Taking More Risks

You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

When I was a student years ago, one of my college professors told us about a study that examined the way living beings react to change. Researchers placed four tubes on the floor, side by side, with a hunk of cheese placed in the second tube. They then released a mouse to see what he would do.

The mouse scurried through the first tube and discovered it was empty. He quickly went to the second tube, found the cheese, ate it, and went back to his cage.

The next day, the researchers did the same thing, and so did the mouse. It wasn’t too long before the mouse was conditioned. He knew there was no cheese in the first tube, so he went directly to the second tube to get his reward.

After several days, the scientists moved the cheese from the second tube to the third one. The mouse was released, and, of course, he went directly to the second tube. It was empty.

What do you think the mouse did? Did he go to the third tube, searching for the cheese? No. Did he go back to the first tube or on to the fourth one? No. He stayed in the second tube, waiting for the cheese to appear.

He had become accustomed to finding cheese in the second tube, and when that changed, he did not adjust. He did not explore any further. He didn’t take any “risks.” If the scientists had allowed it, the poor mouse would have probably starved.

What about you? Are you starving to death in the second tube? Are you waiting for things to go back to the way they used to be? Are you taking enough risks? Or have you stopped exploring new oceans?

On one level, you know that change and risk taking are good. Afterall, you wouldn’t want to buy a car that has no more equipment than the cars of the 1920’s. You wouldn’t want to go to a physician who hasn’t updated his techniques since the 1950’s. And you wouldn’t want to have a lawyer who hasn’t kept up with the law since the 1960’s.

On another level, however, you may be frightened by risk taking. You may associate risk taking with rashness. If so, you have the wrong definition of risk. As General George S. Patton said, “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”

You may even associate risk taking with catastrophe. If so, you’re probably not taking enough risks, and you’re probably missing some of the best things in life.

I was recently on Maui, at the gravesite of pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh. I was reminded of his comment. He said, “I don’t believe in taking foolish chances. But nothing can be accomplished without taking any chance at all.” What about you? Are you taking enough risks?

You get dozens of opportunities every day. Whether they are big or small, personal or professional, there are so many things you can do to practice risk taking and gain the benefits that go along with it.

For example, have you dined at an entirely new ethnic restaurant in the last six months? Have you voluntarily sought out information on the new, younger generation of workers and how to manage them? Have you personally purchased a new product or service via the Internet in the past 30 days? Do you own a handheld computer and actually use it? Have you rearranged the furniture in your office or living room in the past year? Or have you changed your hair style or color in the last eighteen months?

If you answered “No” to most of these questions, you may not be taking enough risks. You may need to follow Yogi Berra’s advice. He said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Of course, you may be asking, “So what? Why should I get in the habit of taking risks? What do I get out of it?”

You get plenty. In fact the benefits are enormous — if you take the right risks in the right way. You get three major, life-changing, life-enhancing benefits.

The first thing you get is LEARNING. When you ask new questions, when you try new things, when you take constructive risks, you can’t help but learn. The American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments, the better.” And British philosopher Bertrand Russell believed, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

You may be content with your learning from the past. You may be one of those people who seldom buys a non-fiction book to study, who seldom listens to tapes to master a new area of expertise, or who seldom attends a seminar that is not mandated by your employer.

That’s too bad. As 1990 Michigan Teacher of the Year, Cynthia Ann Broad declares, “In times of change, it is the learners who will inherit the earth, while the learned will find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.” You need to listen to the timeless advice of Mark Twain, “Take your mind out every now and then and dance on it. It is getting all caked up.”

The second benefit of constructive risk is SELF-ESTEEM. As I say in my program on “Mastering Change: Leaving Your Comfort Zone, Taking Risks, and Getting Results,” I don’t know of any way to live your life in the comfort zone, be afraid of risk, refuse to take any risks, and have great self-esteem. You can’t respect yourself if you wimp your way through life. You can only respect yourself when you’re willing to better yourself by taking appropriate risks.

Champion boxer Muhammad Ali spoke about that. He said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” In other words, it’s difficult to have self-esteem if you’re not growing.

One of America’s greatest Presidents, and one of America’s finest risk takers was Theodore Roosevelt. Whether it was being one of the famous Rough Riders or opening the Panama Canal, he lived a life of constructive risk.

His words should be posted on your wall. They’re the best I’ve ever read. He wrote eloquently on how risk taking leads to self-esteem. He wrote: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

The third benefit of constructive risk is CONTENTMENT. As you go through life, you will have millions of choices, and you will have millions of decisions to make. All of those choices and decisions involve some degree of risk, but some risks are not worth taking. Some risks are just plain foolish.

However, there are lots of choices you should make, and lots of risks you should take. If you don’t take those particular risks, you won’t be content. In those cases, it’s risk or regret. You either do it or wish you would have.

Opera singer Beverly Sills says, “You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.” You can’t be content just sitting in your comfort zone.

Of course, you’re wondering what would happen if you took a risk and it didn’t work out. That’s not nearly as bad as refusing to live in the first place. For years I’ve respected the keen insight of author Sydney J. Harris. In fact, I’ve got his words in my office. The placard says, “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for things we did not do that is inconsolable.”

Do you want more LEARNING, SELF-ESTEEM, AND CONTENTMENT? Then start taking a few more risks.

Action:  Ask yourself these questions, “Am I taking enough risks in life? At home? On the job? Do I have all the learning I will ever need, all the self-esteem I would ever want, and all the contentment I would like to have?  If you answered “No” to two or more of these questions, then it’s time to take more risks. Write down three risks you’ll take or three changes you’ll make this week. Then go out and do them to get the ball rolling in your life.