Taking Risks

Here's What Science Says You Should Do to Achieve Greater Success

Taking risks may seem scary, but risk is the moat standing between you and true success
Here's What Science Says You Should Do to Achieve Greater Success
Image credit: epicurean | Getty Images
Guest Writer
CEO of VUDU Marketing, Author of Screw the Zoo
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Everyone wants to be more successful, even though definitions of success vary wildly. You might picture success as accumulating wealth, or as achieving a position of power in an organization, or even as having more time to spend with your family members and friends.

Strangely enough, there’s one pattern of thinking that’s important to achieving any measure of success, no matter how you define it, and with the right approach, you can master it for yourself: being comfortable taking risks.

Why risk-taking leads to success.

Modeling yourself after risk-takers isn’t necessarily a good thing, since survivorship bias can skew the reality of the situation. That said, there are some real ways that taking more risks can make you more successful:

  • Risks involve uncertainty and change. By nature, risks involve challenging uncertainty and instituting change. If you have a desire to become more successful, it means you’re at least partially unsatisfied with your current situation. Changing that situation inherently makes you more likely to escape it.
  • Elimination of risk is a guarantee of failure. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has said that “the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” If you refuse to take any risks in your life, you will pass up every opportunity in front of you in favor of a stable, certain future. That stability may be comforting, but it won’t provide you with growth or advancement in any dimension.
  • Risk-takers are the minority. Most people are inherently risk averse, so if you take risks on a regular basis, you’ll be in the minority. This is beneficial in two key ways: first, you’ll face less competition, so you’ll be able to carve your own path, and second, you’ll have an easier time standing out in the crowd.
  • Risk-takers are happier. Taking risks eliminates the possibility of looking back and asking, “what if?” Even if you fail, you’ll walk away with more experience and more knowledge, which can lead you to further success in other areas and at least one study shows that risk takers end up more satisfied with their lives because of it.

Related: 5 Things Every Entrepreneur Should Know About Risk-Taking

Important tenets of successful risk taking.

Not all risks are the same, however. To see the benefits of taking risks, you need to take risks with the following caveats:

  • You need to examine all the options. Risk taking isn’t about jumping on every opportunity; it’s about taking the right ones. Fully explore all your options before settling on any decision.
  • Your risks need to be calculated. Leonard C. Green, an entrepreneurship mentor, is known for repeatedly insisting that, “entrepreneurs are not risk-takers. They are calculated risk-takers.” Your goal isn’t to blindly risk your career and fortune, but rather to maximize your chances of success. Knowing the odds, as specifically as possible, is the key to choosing the right risks to take.
  • You need to take many risks. Probabilities only play out after multiple iterations of a given event. For example, if you take a single risk that has a 55 percent chance of success, there’s a good chance you’ll end up on the wrong end of the distribution. But if you take 100 of those risks, you’ll stand a far better chance of coming out ahead, on average.

Why risks are scary.

Unfortunately, merely understanding the benefits of risk-taking aren’t enough. Most of us are inherently risk averse; in the face of a risk, or a bad situation, the human brain is wired to imagine worst-case scenarios, which unfortunately stifles our productivity and makes us feel anxious and stressed.

Related: How to Destroy Your Fears -- for Good

Historically, this has been a good thing for our species; escalating our perception of risk keeps us far away from dangerous territory and maximizes our chances for survival. But in the modern world, where most risks we take aren’t life-threatening, that overactive imagination can do more harm than good.

Can You Become a Risk Taker?

Intuitively, you might guess that risk-taking behavior is something predetermined, whether through genetics or through a person’s upbringing, and to some extent you’re correct. For example, there’s evidence that cortisol and testosterone levels may be linked to higher risk-taking behavior -- and your hormones aren’t something you can specifically control.

However, there are some strategies you can use to make yourself more comfortable with taking risks in your daily life. Neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart has shown that our current risk aversion or risk tolerance is linked to how we’ve benefited from risks in the past; if you take a risk and it pays off well, we physiologically respond by favoring risks in the future. The opposite is true if a risk doesn’t pay off.

Accordingly, you can make yourself more comfortable with taking risks simply by taking more risks -- even if they’re small ones -- in your daily life. As long as you’re making intelligent risk choices (making sure your chances of a payoff are greater than 50 percent), eventually all those decisions will reinforce the benefits of taking a calculated risk, and you won’t be as risk averse in the future.

To take a risk, fake a risk.

There’s also evidence to suggest you can shape your way of thinking just by pretending that you think in a different way. One 2016 study found that people solved problems more creatively when acting in ways consistent with their perception of creative people. In other words, the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach is rooted in reality; thinking like a risk-taker, and behaving like one, can inevitably make you more comfortable with taking risks in your daily life.

Related: The Truth About 'Fake It 'Til You Make It'

Is it easy to shift your perceptions so dramatically that you become a risk-taker after a lifetime of risk aversion? Absolutely not -- but it is possible, and if you want to be successful, you should consider it your responsibility to learn to take more and better risks in your daily life. Start today, by making one risky decision or taking one risky action, even if its benefits or consequences are minimal; it’s the start of a new habit that might someday help you achieve your loftiest goals.

As Jack Canfield has said, "Everything you want is on the other side of fear."

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