How Strong is Your Risk Muscle?

Image courtesy of Graur Razvan Ionut

Image courtesy of Graur Razvan Ionut

“If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always gotten.” – Anonymous

In a previous post, I talked about how it’d make sense for us to say, I don’t know, a lot more often than we do. Biology and neuroscience confirm that we construct stories from very little information and that we do so as a way to make sense of things. The problem is that we bias our stories toward what we already believe.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s a big obstacle to change. In a world where the pace of change continues to increase, it’d be helpful if we could increase our capacity for it. Increasing our tolerance for change – essentially, for risk – can open us up to new possibilities and help us break out of personal and professional ruts.

Our resistance to change causes us to interpret new information as more risky or undesirable than it might actually be. Add to that our inability to predict what would make us happy – research shared by Harvard University social psychologist, Daniel Gilbert – and you get the sense that we may close down more possibilities than we consider. Essentially, we know that our mental models – the frameworks we draw on to interpret life events – aren’t a lot of help when it comes to trying new things.

Yet it’s clear that many of us want to take more risks. Just think of how many times you’ve said or heard someone say, I wish I could _____. Fill in the blank. Learning new things can be scary. But each time you do something new, something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re increasing your capacity for risk. You’re strengthening what I like to call your risk muscle.

Strengthen a physical muscle, and you may feel physical pain. Strengthen a risk muscle, and the pain you feel will be emotional. This is normal. It’s expected that you may feel anxious, afraid, exhausted, insecure, or inadequate. It’s expected that you’ll spend time operating in what Goalbook CEO, Daniel Yoo, describes as survivalist mode.

But if we view our capacity for risk as a muscle, then we can put a plan in place to strengthen it. Here’s a set of exercises to get you started:

Begin with a fitness test. Determine your baseline. Spend a few minutes thinking about the last time you did something that challenged you, something that was risky, and that made you feel uncomfortable because it stretched you in some way. Has it been a while?

Warm up with one set (one day) of infinite reps. Take one day in the coming week and, every time a new opportunity comes up, say yes. At the end of the week, check in. How’d it feel to do that? What was scary, exciting, new, overwhelming, uncomfortable?

Add sets and maintain. Get used to how it feels to be open to new experiences. Instead of just one day a week, say yes until you’re able to do it several days a week over the course of a month. Check in again with how you’re feeling.

Add an exercise of your own. You’re been saying “yes” to opportunities as they come to you. You’ve been expanding your capacity to be open to new things. Now it’s time for you to create an opportunity of your own. What’s a risk you’ll choose to take – even if it’s a small one – because of an interest that you have?

Assess. What if you take this risk? How do you think you’ll feel? What are the trade-offs?

Crunch time. Do it! Remember that you may feel uncomfortable. Depending on the action you’ve chosen to take, you may feel uncomfortable for a while, that is, until you get beyond survivalist mode. That’s okay. Just recognize it and see it as a normal part of the risk-taking process.

Remember that we’re wired to play it safe. We like being part of a tribe of like-minded people, which means we can get lulled into thinking that anything outside that comfort zone is scary. But the thing is, we can think of our capacity for risk as a muscle. In order to strengthen it, we need to exercise it regularly. There may be short-term pain involved but, as with any exercise, the long-term benefits can enhance our quality of life.

What do you think?


  1. Jon P on October 21, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Wow. An inspiring post, Gayle. I like how you associated it with fitness and broke it down into steps to build yourself up. I’m going to give it a try!

  2. Jon P on October 21, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Would be great to work on this stuff in teams, maybe even include it in an online class. People improving independently, but having a support group to build them up. Reading and commenting on the reflections of the participants as they exercised their muscles would be fun and interesting.

  3. Gayle on October 21, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Thanks Jon! Let me know how it goes. Hope all is well in Hawaii! : )

  4. Gayle on October 21, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Jon, that’s a terrific idea. The support piece – working on this in teams and even through an online class – so important. Hard to take risks alone. A book you might like that speaks to the importance of support and other contextual factors in relation to risk is Change or Die. Really well done and very practical. Keep the ideas coming – think you’re saying a mouthful here.