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Afraid to Take a Chance?

Intelligent risk-taking is not as hard as it looks

In the past two weeks, three different clients told me they were going sky-diving. My first thought was “not.” My second was “better them than me.”

I’m not particularly fond of heights and can’t imagine jumping out of anything higher than two inches off the ground (and not even that if I don’t have to), so I was curious about what appealed to them. One spoke of the adventure. Another told me that it had been a life-long dream. And the third said she wanted to know what it felt like to fly.

They’re all significantly younger than I am, so I thought maybe the fact that none of them worried about breaking a bone was age-related. But then my brother, who adores sky-diving (and is not even two years younger than me), reminded me about George H.W. Bush’s 85th birthday celebration skydive over Maine. Okay. So maybe age isn’t the only problem here.

I would say that I come by my hesitation naturally. My sister-in-law shares my lack of love of heights, but of course we’re only bonded by years of closeness, not genes. I could say that I come from a somewhat cautious family, but my brother’s skydiving adventures might suggest otherwise.

So how do we explain why one person loves to take risks and another doesn’t? And are all risks the same?

Let’s answer the second question first. The answer is a resounding – and probably obvious – no.

For example, there is Brad*, a young man who has no fear when it comes to physical danger. Brad would swim in shark-infested water, ski in the middle of avalanche territory, and climb sheer rock face. “I love pitting myself against nature,” he tells me. But put him with a woman who might want to get serious and he is out the door in a minute and a half. Brad is terrified of taking a chance when it comes to relationships. “No way,” he says. “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.”

Or Margo*, who has no problem taking chances in relationships. She is married to a terrific guy, who she loves very much. But she is a smart and capable woman who has no confidence in her ability to hold down a job. “When it’s time to ask for a raise,” she says, “I just look for another job.” When I ask her to explain why she is afraid to take a chance on getting a raise that she deserves, she says, “What if he tells me what a lousy job I’ve been doing? I couldn’t deal with that.”

In a blog for, Sara Eckel tells us that most people are not good at evaluating risks. But the danger that most of us seem to fear the most is the feeling that we cannot control the outcome. So most of us avoid doing the things that we believe will not have a good outcome. The difference between someone who is not willing to take chances and someone who is, then, appears to be a sense of confidence that we can control what is going to happen.

Jonathan Fields, author of the book "Uncertainty: Turning fear and doubt into fuel for Brilliance," suggests that one way to manage anxiety about outcome is to develop a plan for the worst possible result of any venture. But while Brad is confident about his scenarios for dangerous physical situations, he cannot come up with any good images for a longterm relationship; and while Margo has no difficulty imagining dealing with issues that might come up between herself and her husband, she has no good pictures of asking her boss for a raise.

This is the thing about taking chances. By definition, taking a chance means not being in control. Reasonable chances offer reasonable amounts of control. Risky chances offer far less control. But of course, the paradox is that not taking chances doesn’t actually give us more control at all. It just keeps us from getting what we want.

In my book on daydreams, I write about a young woman who is so afraid of being disappointed that she refuses to take any chances. But the end result is that she is living a life that is almost nothing but disappointment. When she begins to see that she is not really protecting herself, she also begins to take some chances. And her life gets much better.

I am not suggesting that we all throw caution to the wind and suddenly start taking all sorts of risks. But there are chances that we have to take in order to get what we want. For example, if Margo does not take a chance on asking her boss for feedback, she may never find out that she’s doing a terrific job! And if Brad continues to run away from every woman in his life because he is afraid he will not be able to take control, he may miss out on something more powerful than swimming with sharks!

So what makes one person take chances and another not? There’s good evidence that this character style, like everything else about human experience, is a mix of genes, biology, culture and experience. My mother didn’t like heights. My son doesn’t like heights. And I don’t like them. Could be genetic. Could be environment. Or, as John Gedo has written, it could be 100% of both.

What is important, however, is to understand what you’re afraid of, and, if it’s important to you to move through your fear, to take a chance, then you can try to imagine what you can do to deal with it. Intelligent chance taking doesn’t mean just jumping. It means looking carefully, weighing possibilities, thinking out possible outcome, and making a considered decision.

I, for example, am still not going skydiving. But Margo decided to ask her boss for a raise – and got it. And Brad is dating a lovely woman and trying to figure out just what he’s so afraid of. For him, it’s a lot harder than skiing down a mountain.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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