25th Jan 2018
Everyone has a different appetite for risk, depending on the situation, of course. Caroline Foran, journalist and author of The Confidence Kit (out May 2018) believes evaluating where you stand on the risk-taking spectrum can help you make better choices and ultimately build confidence.
Risk-taking depends on several factors – among which your personality, your environment and the potential for reward are included – society’s take on risk plays a particularly significant role. As children we generally take risks with ease. I certainly don’t remember engaging in a cost/benefit analysis before diving into my fourth slice of cake, do you? Here, if our decisions go against us, our parents will cushion the blow. The stakes, at this stage, are relatively low – a bruised knee, a tummy ache, a half hour spent in ‘the bold corner’.
As adolescents, the stakes begin to rise; we splinter off, becoming risk-takers or play-it-safers: if you’re big on risk-taking as a teenager, it’s unlikely that you’re making the smartest decisions, e.g. ignoring your studies, drinking alcohol. Here, risk-taking and rule-breaking behaviours are frowned upon and so, we either toe the party line or rebel against it. Society tells us that if we want to do well in life, we need to to submit our assignments on time, to colour inside the proverbial lines. The cost is not getting into college, disappointing our parents or, in very general terms: failing. Aside from the occasional social risk, play-it-safers can easily go through adolescence without being forced to take risks; in fact they’re encouraged not to .
In adulthood, the stakes are at their highest. Now, the act of risk-taking is no longer as easily avoidable. We’re faced with buying a house, committing to a relationship, quitting your job to try something new or making a significant investment. Interestingly, it’s here that a 180 seems to occur, at least in professional circles: though the stakes are higher, risk-taking is no longer seen as a negative. In some workplaces, risk-takers are rewarded; they jump ahead. Failure is not the death sentence it once was and though we’ve been advised to avoid it up to this point, for some people, the risk of failure becomes nothing more than a stepping stone on the road to success.
If you were comfortable with risk as a teen, it’s likely you’ll carry that through to adulthood, despite the rising stakes. If you were a devout play-it-safer, chances are you now find it difficult to throw caution to the wind. But in between these two generalised ends of the risk-taking spectrum, there exists a series of risk profiles – from ‘very defensive’ on one end, to ‘conservative’ and ‘moderate’ in the middle, to ‘very aggressive’ on the other end and each person has their own propensity for risk. What’s more, how comfortable you are with risk is domain specific. For example, I have a moderate to low propensity for significant financial risk – I would carefully consider the purchase of a house outside of my budget – but a more aggressive approach to taking risks within my career – saying yes to a job that I feel entirely under qualified to do.
This leads to the question about risk taking and confidence – is a person who is comfortable with risk more confident than the person who is not? – and it’s a hard one to answer because like risk-taking, confidence is also domain specific. I recently met a very confident surgeon who had no doubt about his ability in this domain, but who claimed to have little self-confidence when it came to social interactions. Similarly, I would crumble if faced with the risk of jumping out of a plane – a physical risk for which I have low self-confidence – but I have never hesitated to jump headfirst into a romantic relationship – an emotional risk for which I have high self-confidence.
It’s widely accepted that taking risks can give you a confidence boost, but that’s only when the outcome isn’t disastrous, and so the key is to focus on low-risk scenarios (such as a drastic change of hairstyle), if confidence-boosting is your aim. With bigger things, such as financial risk, diving in without consideration would be foolish, while the ability to assess the potential for loss and reward is an asset. At the same time, not taking a chance on something doesn’t give you more control, it just keeps you where you are (and potentially away from what you want).
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, and whatever significant decision you face, it’s worth being mindful of your risk profile – and there are countless tests you can do online to figure this out. If you have a high propensity for risk, you can objectively pull back and assess the situation, and if you have a strong aversion to it, you can mindfully lean into it. In any case, the smartest thing to do is go back to the old reliable cost/benefit analysis, with gut instinct, emotion and impulse taken out of the equation (unless of course it’s a risk in love). A balanced attitude towards risk – neither overly cautious or downright stupid – is the ideal.
Photo credit: Todd Quackenbush, Unsplash
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