Flex your bravery muscle
A risk-averse writer faces her fears – and finds out how much you can gain from taking a chance
One determined writer discovers the rich life rewards of not playing it safe
OK, confession time: I’m the antithesis of a risk taker: a lifelong type-a goody-two-shoes who always ate her broccoli and obeyed her parents. My one rebellious phase, in my early 20s, involved trance music and glowsticks – but the guilt I felt over the debauchery landed me in therapy. So, two years ago, when I scored an invitation to travel to West Africa, I was dubious. On the one hand, it was an extraordinary opportunity: I’d be meeting with women in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast who’d suffered unspeakable hardships – war, child marriage, female genital mutilation – and writing about them, so their voices could be heard. On the other, the Ivory Coast had sustained a terrorist attack a week prior, and Sierra Leone had been decimated by Ebola in 2014.
Let’s just say, this trip would be a stretch for a risk-averse hypochondriac who’d rather shower in socks than walk barefoot in the changing room. Then there’s the fact I’m a parent to two young girls. While I’ve always been fine leaving them for quick trips, this was on the other side of the planet, in at least one country marred by violence. Coincidentally, my husband was scheduled to be in Paris the same week. Together, we decided I’d decline the invitation.
Once I’d made that decision, though, it didn’t sit well. Did I want to teach our girls to be afraid, to play it safe in their comfort zone? Or did I want to model the importance of challenging themselves, of leaning in instead of shying away? The irony: I’d be travelling with CARE, a non-profit dedicated to empowering women and girls. So I cold-called a few international public health and security experts, got more comfortable with the idea and chose to take the risk.
THE YOUNG AND THE RISKLESS
From the moment we start walking, girls are taught to shy away from risk. Researchers from the University of Guelph in Canada found mums were more likely to warn daughters about taking risks at the playground than sons. And a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found after children were treated in the ER for an injury, parents were four times more likely to tell their girls to be careful than their boys.
Long term, this gendered safeguarding might stop little Katie scraping her knee, “but she may also be less likely to grow up and say, ‘I’m not happy in my job so I’m going to move to America to follow my dreams,’” says Dr Jodie Plumert, a developmental psychologist and co-author of the ER study.
Instilling this kind of caution can also pave the way for anxiety. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology found girls encouraged by their parents to take moderate risks (such as play-fighting) have fewer anxiety issues as they grow up. “Developmentally, we need to be pushed into unfamiliar situations where we grow and learn coping strategies,” says Dr Michael Ungar, a professor of social work and resilience expert. Bubble-wrapping our kids, he says, means they have fewer opportunities to succeed in tricky situations so, when something truly bad arises, they’re screwed.
KEEP CALM AND TAKE A CHANCE
Put simply, risk taking is making decisions with uncertain outcomes. We take “hundreds, if not thousands, of risks a day”, explains Kayt Sukel, author of The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution & Chance. You walk down the street to meet a mate for dinner, even though you could trip and fall, get mugged, be hit by a car ... you get the gist.
Each time you try something new, your brain releases dopamine – the pleasure hormone. “But it’s also the learning hormone,” says Sukel. “Dopamine helps your brain attach meaning to different experiences: ‘This feels good. This feels bad. Ouch! That wasn’t fun.’” Everything gets tagged, so the next time you need to make a similar decision, such as whether or not to wear white on a rainy day, you can make it wisely. In this way, taking chances – even small, mundane ones – is how we learn to navigate the world.
For Annabel Jackson, 33, starting her own beauty business at the beginning of 2018 was a massive leap of faith. After moving to Australia from the UK – where she worked as a beauty technician – eight years ago, she took up temp work, expecting to stay in the country for only a year. But when she met her husband, her plans changed and the temp role became permanent. “I always wanted to get back into beauty but didn’t know how, and the years just passed by,” Annabel says. “I kept on putting it off, [but then] I was like, ‘It’s only going to come down to me to decide to do it; no one else is going to get me there.’” With support from her family, she developed a business name (BELLE Braids and Beauty) and launched social media accounts to make herself known. And although her mobile makeup and hair business is only eight months old, she’s already seen the pros of taking a risk. “Having this business has pushed me out of my comfort zone, to network more and put myself out there,” she says. “I wouldn’t normally do that because [I’m] fearful of getting criticised and not being good enough, so I think it’s been really beneficial for me.”
This cocktail of psychological benefits – emotional resilience, confidence, openness to challenges and engagement with life – has been dubbed “The Risk-taker’s Advantage” by Ungar. And the advantage can be gleaned from big moves (starting over in your career) and small ones (cooking a tough-but-yum-sounding recipe, even if the result looks like the ultimate #struggleplate). Added bonus? Novelty also boosts blood flow to the brain, linked to improved memory and reduced dementia risk.
BUILT TO BE BALLSY
Ready to get gutsy? You’ve got company – and a leg-up.
Women are enjoying a cultural moment of pushing boundaries, from participating in extreme sports (according to Ultrarunning
Magazine, the percentage of female finishers in ultramarathons grew from eight per cent in 1980 to 33 per cent in 2016) to helming the #Metoo movement. And we tend to be better than men at taking social risks. We’re more likely to bring up uncomfy issues in meetings, for example, or to go to great lengths to help a friend, perhaps because we’re more socialised to help each other.
As for me, the Africa trip was a game changer. It’s hard not to have a serious shift in perspective when interviewing an Ebola survivor who lost her mother, daughter and her siblings. I fell in love with my profession all over again. Our girls saw their mum chase her dreams. In the Venn diagram of Status Quo and Danger Zone, I discovered the magical sweet spot of taking chances – and it’s a space I’m getting more and more comfortable in.