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How Rethinking the Way You Take Risks Can Make You More Successful

Research shows you can teach yourself to err on the side of possibility.

We make about 35,000 decisions each day. Most of these decisions are small, getting us from one moment to the next: What to wear? Call or text? Elevator or stairs? It’s not beneficial — or possible — to weigh the costs and benefits of every single one.

But some decisions carry real weight, and in a sense we are the products of the decisions we make. Have you taken, or turned down, a job that changed the direction of your career and life? Or had a big, bold idea you wanted to share in a meeting, but ultimately decided not to because it seemed too outside-the-box or even crazy? Faced with uncertainty or the odds stacked against you, are you likely to hang back or “go for it” — whatever “it” may be?

Each of these scenarios involves some kind of risk. When we understand this invisible but ever-present force in our lives, we’re able to bring more perspective and wisdom to our most important decisions — including knowing which decisions are truly important and which are not. And research shows we can get better at it, and improve our performance at the same time.

Subhed: Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Risk Taking

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will help you rethink risk-taking so you can approach decisions with less stress and come away with more favorable outcomes. Our Thrive Global Microsteps — simple, science-backed changes you can start incorporating into your life today — will help you shift your attitude so you’ll be able to consider the downsides of risk-taking without becoming overwhelmed by them.

We’ll introduce you to the New Role Models who are living proof that taking calculated risks can pay off and propel you to new heights of productivity, creativity and success. For example, Venture for America CEO Amy Nelson told Thrive that quitting one of her former jobs was one of the most liberating experiences of her life. Fear and anxiety expert Kristen Ulmer told Thrive that “Doing scary things is a sign we’re on the path toward learning and growing.” And Maria Menounos told Thrive that “everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated the best technology that can help you rethink risk and make better decisions.

Creating an environment that encourages risk-taking can turn a stale, overcautious workplace into one that crackles with creativity and healthy competition. Our Managerial Take-aways section offers advice for managers committed to fostering a culture where people feel comfortable taking risks and embracing failure — because they know they’ll be supported and celebrated even if their big, bold, unconventional ideas don’t turn out as planned.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have the tools and practical advice you need to make risk-taking an essential part of your success, for yourself and for those around you.

Subhed: The Science of Risk-Taking

Our choices and our relationship with risk don’t just determine the course of our lives, they’re at the core of our character and how we’re perceived. There’s a spectrum of risk-taking personalities, from daredevils to those who always choose the safest route, and everything in between. As an individual, you tolerate certain levels of risk depending on the situation; you might be cautious in one area of life and reckless in another. Risk-taking peaks in adolescence, according to a study from University College London, and as we grow and take on more and more responsibilities, we learn to weigh the costs and benefits of risks in every aspect of our lives.

Some risks, of course, cause tremendous damage. Think of the reckless financial decisions that contributed to the global financial crisis. According to a study published in Scientific Reports, hormones including cortisol and testosterone correlate to financial risk-taking, which “could play a destabilizing role in financial markets.” As the BBC reported, “Since men tend to have higher testosterone levels than women, they can often be more willing to act impulsively, on partial information – even though both genders have similar appetites for risk.”

But we also know that taking risks can pay off, sometimes in ways that can improve our lives and careers and even change the world. Leaping into the unknown can lead to growth, new experiences, and bring you into contact with new people. And when you re-think risk’s role in your life, you can look at decisions with more clarity and increase the likelihood that a risk will lead to the desired outcome.

That includes learning to know what is a risk and what isn’t. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, has shown that we have a strong tendency toward “loss aversion” — that is, we overestimate the chances that something will go wrong and err on the side of timidity and caution as a result. Knowing this, we can train ourselves to be more thoughtful about what really constitutes a risk — and what makes a risk worth taking.

Since cortisol (known as the stress hormone) can impede our judgment when it comes to assessing risk, causing us to focus only on the negative, one simple step we can take is to reduce stress. Tara Swart, a London-based neuroscientist, recommends “silencing the mind” with mindfulness techniques including breathing, taking a walk, or simply bringing your mind into the present.

And because risk is closely connected to our anxiety around failure, we can increase our ability to take good risks when we learn to embrace failure as a learning experience. According to Michael Gervais, a psychologist, host of the podcast Finding Mastery and Thrive Global scientific advisory board member, training ourselves to overcome our natural aversion to risk begins with “learning to be OK with failure, with viewing short-term failures as a part of long-term personal success and fulfillment.”

When you’re in this mindset, you’ll be able to see the bigger picture, think bigger and bolder, and take risks that can improve your performance and creativity. It’s this way of thinking that has propelled so many people to success in every field, including business, where taking risks is absolutely essential for success. As Daymond John, an investor and founder of FUBU, has said, “the bigger risk would’ve been never trying.”

Now, let’s put these insights into action.

Subhed: Small, Actionable Steps You Can Take Today

Here are three microsteps you can take to reframe the way you think about risk.

1. Don’t hesitate to add a meaningful new goal or project to your list.

We tend to overestimate the odds of failure, which can make us shy away from our most ambitious, innovative ideas. If there’s a project that means a lot to you but always seems out of reach, set a deadline for yourself to make it feel more concrete and therefore more achievable.

2. Set a daily calendar reminder for at least five minutes of meditation.

When you’re stressed, your sense of possibility gets clouded by negativity. Even just a few minutes of meditation—or a short walk, or both—can help silence your doubts and self-judgments, and help you feel emboldened to take a leap.

3. Try something you’ve never done before.

For example, if you tend to shy away from public speaking, but your boss gives you the opportunity to present at a team meeting, take it. When you break out of your comfort zone in small ways, you’ll build up inner strength so you can take bigger risks down the road.

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