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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."
What if you're the slow-wader type -- the girl at the beach who puts her toes in first then very slowly ventures in up to her knees but goes no further? If you've spent your whole life bowing to fear and avoiding risk, can you break the habit?
Absolutely. The first step is to change your perspective and realize that playing it safe is also a risk. "If you are bored with your job and you find out about a new position and you don't do anything, you'll lose out on that opportunity," says Stoker. Not taking any chances is as much a decision as taking that first step toward change. Once you redefine risk in this way -- as a positive life philosophy -- you can begin to embrace it as a chance to move forward, to grow and learn, to achieve a goal or ambition.
That doesn't mean you have to leap blindly. Intelligent risk-taking starts with research. First on your agenda? Learn as much as possible about whatever it is you're afraid of.
"Knowledge always trumps fear," says Melinda Blanchard, author, with her husband, Bob, of Changing Your Course: The 5-Step Guide to Getting the Life You Want. Blanchard has taken many risks herself. She and her husband started a business right out of college with $8,000 and no experience, and then, years later, she chucked her relatively stable life in Vermont and opened a restaurant on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.
"People use all kinds of excuses for not making change, and most people say that fear and lack of money are their biggest obstacles," Blanchard says. "But it is lack of information that usually turns out to be the biggest culprit." Talk to people who've done what you want to do, she advises, and find out about the challenges they've faced. "The worst-case scenario is seldom as bad as you think."
Joan Kral, a retired middle-school teacher from Hayward, California, recently took the plunge -- literally. Kral, 72, had been afraid of the water ever since she had a pool accident at age 10. "That put an end to my swimming," she says. More than 50 years later, something clicked. "I remembered how much I'd enjoyed being in the pool, and I decided it was time for me to deal with this."
Kral signed up for a swim class designed for fearful adults. "I was the only one who didn't go down to the deep end on the first day," she says. But the class took it step-by-step, with the instructor teaching them how to stay focused on the moment -- the feel of the water, the techniques they were learning -- not on their fears.
It worked. Kral now swims laps twice a week and helps teach other adults to swim. Being able to swim without fear wasn't the only positive outcome of taking that leap. "I realized I could use this technique of staying in the moment to deal with other things I was afraid of," she says. "Now when I get a feeling of fear, I know I can handle the situation."
You don't have to begin your venture into risk-taking by working through a past trauma, as Kral did. You can start with a small risk, something where there's not much at stake. If you're shy, for example, try initiating a conversation with someone you see at lunch. At the end of the day, give yourself a pat on the back. "The more you give yourself credit, the more confident you'll be, and the more confident you are the more risks you'll take," says Stoker.
There are good reasons why many people are afraid to take chances, of course. Risk-takers might turn a small idea into a million dollars or wind up marrying the captain of the football team after daring to ask him out on a date, but they are also more likely to lose a fortune, suffer the pain of rejection, or wrap their car around a tree. So once you decide to overcome fear and dare to make your own dreams come true, how do you determine which risks are worthwhile and which are just too risky?
Ask yourself a few simple questions: "What's the best thing that can happen if I do this? And the worst?" Equally important, what are the best and worst things that can happen if you don't do it? This way, you'll get a clearer sense of what you're risking, before you take that first step.
Boston mom Victoria Lane asked herself those questions when she thought about going back to school after her daughter was out of diapers. "I really wanted to have an identity other than being a mom," she says. "I wanted to become a librarian and the only way to get myself there was to apply to school. But that felt impossible -- I'd always had terrible test scores, I'd really struggled in college, and the thought of going back was terrifying."
Sitting in the car while her daughter was in a music class one day, Lane burst into tears. "It was the one- millionth car trip and I thought, Who am I?" she remembers. "How will my daughter see me -- as a chauffeur?"
It was the breaking point for Lane. "Instead of telling myself I couldn't do it, I said, 'Why not apply? Worst case, I won't get in.' Then when I got in, it was, 'I'll just take one class -- I can drop out if I have to.' I conquered my fear by taking it one step at a time."
Lane now works as a librarian at two elementary schools and loves it. "It's really made all the difference," she says. "I feel as though it makes me a better mom, too."
Taking risks will always be scary. But even more frightening is a life without risk, a life that's safe but unsatisfying. I think of people like Lane whenever I find myself facing a risk, either big or small. The risk-taking women in my life have taught me that whenever you do something you've been afraid to do, you get stronger and you realize you can live with and through stress. You might even find your dream awaits you on the other side. And while I don't see myself making any dramatic life changes in the foreseeable future, I do try to muster the same courage to overcome everyday hurdles, like adopting a dog even though I was afraid I couldn't handle the training, learning to play the piano at forty-something -- or picking up the phone to call a long-lost friend.
Sometimes taking physical risks -- planned-out, reasonable ones like rock-climbing, whitewater rafting, or skydiving -- can actually be good for your mental health. "It's the heightened awareness in physical risk-taking that's so valuable," according to Michael Gass, PhD, chair of the kinesiology department at the University of New Hampshire. It doesn't even need to be that risky an activity, so long as it feels challenging to you. For example, maybe you decide to go on a camping trip even though being in the wilderness makes you really nervous. Through the experience of pushing past your comfort zone, you realize you can take care of yourself and make smart decisions on the spot, and that you're not a victim of your own fear. The determination and perseverance you gain can inspire you to make changes in other areas of your life.
Readers share the sweet rewards of going out on a limb:
"At age 30 I finally flew for the first time...ending a lifetime of being afraid of airplanes. Since then I have flown everywhere and now I love it! Plus my kids go too and they think flying is the greatest...no fears for them!"
-- Lisa Maxwell, Cookeville, Tennessee
"I went on a blind date. I was recently divorced and was shell-shocked and nervous about dating, but taking that chance led me to the love of my life, who's now my husband."
-- Glynis Buschmann, Yuba City, California
"Several years ago I decided to close my daycare business and return to writing after a 25-year hiatus. I was scared I'd never achieve real pro status after such a long break -- but now I'm writing full-time and got a contract with one of the biggest newspapers in my area."
-- Carine Nadel, Laguna Hills, California
"I turned down a lucrative but boring job offer in my hometown and moved to New York City. I had no apartment, no job, and knew only four people. I was very lonely and poor, but am a stronger, braver, more independent and well-rounded person because of taking that risk -- and I love the career I found here!"
-- Sandy Loh, New York, New York
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2009.