Go Ahead, Jump: The Rewards of Taking Risks

Taking smart risks -- even small ones -- can lead to surprisingly big rewards.
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Why Take Chances?

After five years I could only vaguely recall why my good friend Diane and I had stopped talking. There was never a big fight, just a series of smaller conflicts. I spilled the beans about a secret crush she had on a coworker. She disapproved when I breastfed my daughter into toddlerhood. I was hurt about not being invited to speak at her wedding. The incidents added up until we were both so upset we let the relationship slip away. But I missed Diane. Left and right it seemed women our age were battling cancer or coping with other major stressors. Life suddenly felt short and precious and I needed our friendship back.

The last time I'd reached out she hadn't answered my e-mail. So this time I called, trying not to think about how hurt and embarrassed I'd be if she rejected me again. As I nervously punched in her number, I tried to focus on the positive: Maybe we could be friends again. Maybe we'd wind up closer than ever. That possibility made it worth the risk.

"Hi," I said, "it's..."

Diane recognized my voice before I even said my name. It was awkward but she didn't hang up. That first conversation lasted almost an hour.

For me simply picking up the phone to call my friend felt as scary as skydiving. That's not surprising, says Esther Rothblum, PhD, a women's studies professor at San Diego State University and an expert on women and risk. "Women are raised to believe that relationships are very important, so we don't like to take risks if they involve the possibility of losing or ending a relationship."

Women are less likely than men to engage in risky behavior. For example, we're less likely to drive too fast -- and as a result we have lower insurance rates. Playing it safe can be a good thing sometimes, for sure. But taking some risks -- particularly those scary emotional ones -- can be a critical factor in living a happy, fulfilled life. Go out on a limb, and you could get that degree you've always wanted, learn to speak in public without fear, or make a new friend in your neighborhood. And the benefits of taking risks can go beyond such specifics.

"People who take more risks tend to learn more and experience more personal growth," says Juli Ann Reynolds, president and CEO of the Tom Peters Company, who recently directed a national study on women and leadership. She found that risk-taking helps people think big and that women who push their comfort zone are more likely to end up as leaders in the workplace.

"Fear is a double-edged sword," says Barbara Stoker, author of Positive Risk: How Smart Women Use Passion to Break Through Their Fears. "On the one side it keeps you safe, but it usually holds you back from doing those things that really matter."

And as for the occasional but inevitable failure that accompanies risk? That's a good thing, too. You discover that you can survive it, learn something from it, and often go on to succeed, Stoker says. "Self-confidence and resilience, that's the invisible reward."

Continued on page 2:  Getting Over Your Fears


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