Do you remember that feeling standing at the top of the big water slide as a kid? The line is moving, the water is rushing, and each person in front of you hops on the slide and immediately gets whooshed away. Soon enough it’s your turn and the semi-cute 16-year-old lifeguard ushers for you to step forward. Remember the adrenaline and the butterflies?
It was a risk.
A calculated risk, yes (none of the other kids seemed to have been seriously injured on the way down), but a risk nonetheless. In our childhood, our daily lives included many, many risks: making new friends, taking new classes, starting a new extra curricular sport. It was full of growth and figuring things out. As we age and our lives become a bit more stable, maybe a bit more routine, we start taking less risks. The data shows that adults take significantly less risk than teenagers and while in many ways, that is a very good thing, is it possible that us adults can get stuck in our comfortable lives and avoid risk entirely? And how much are we missing out on by simply avoiding the scary or uncomfortable?
We polled some members of our Fresh Sends Community who have experience with risk to get their two-cents on why taking an uncertain jump paid off for them:
The researchers found that the decline in risky choices as people age matches a similar decline in levels of dopamine. "As we age, our dopamine levels naturally decline, which could explain why we are less likely to seek rewards," explains lead author Dr. Robb Rutledge of the UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research. "The effects we saw in the experiment may be due to dopamine decline, since age was associated with only one type of risk-taking and mirrored the known effects of dopamine drugs on decision making. Older people were not more risk-averse overall, and they didn't make more mistakes than young people did. Older people were simply less attracted to big rewards and this made them less willing to take risks to try to get them."*
Based on multiple research studies (such as the one mentioned above), the data show that as we age, we become more risk averse. What is something that helps you still engage or take healthy risk?
"In the last few years, I’ve shifted my priorities to build a life around things that bring me joy. So, I define risk as anything that compromises the pillars of my life - the joy generators. The things that bring me endless joy include my partner’s happiness, my physical health, creative expression, travel, film, and learning new things. While it sounds obvious, a lot of people don’t prioritize that way. Instead, they accept typical constructs to be their only pathway to joy as they age. This includes working at a high paying job, having a big house, driving a nice car, being invited to everything, having kids right away, etc. Because I have different criteria for joy, my risks are different. I’ll move across the world, try to start a business, do a triathlon, and try to speak a new language because the downside of those things are not real risks to me. What I won’t do, I won’t compromise my health, I won’t impede my partner from seeing something she’s never seen before, and I won’t neglect an opportunity to learn something new. Those are real risks to the things that bring me joy."
"The idea that if, I don't take a risk I know with some certainty how my life will pan out. Taking risks brings excitement and variety to my life. Seeking this type of adventure and irregularity (or potentially seeking a lack of regularity) ultimately encourages me to take risks."
"The rewards that make it worth it. The desire to grow and challenge myself also pushes me to take risks."
"I try to strike a healthy balance between taking risks and playing it safe. My natural inclination is to always play it safe so I really have to push myself out of my comfort zone in order to take risks - big or small. One way I encourage myself to take risks or remind myself to keep an open mind when it comes to risk taking is inventorying times in my life that I have taken risks. Some of my risks paid off in the best way and I’m forever grateful I took them. Others have been failures or not worked out as I had hoped. But even the most unsuccessful risks I have taken have actually benefitted me through personal growth and development, lessons learned and opportunities to make changes or improvements in my life that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Just the simple reminder to myself that I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life and I’m still here and living a life worth celebrating is enough to make my want to take new risks in the future!"
Risk and being uncomfortable can be scary, can you describe a time in your life where taking a calculated risk paid off?
"I can think of a few instances from quitting a job with no back up plan to trying to start my own company but one big risk comes to mind that has had the most profound impact on my life. In my late twenties I was engaged to a guy whom I had dated for 6 years. I won’t get into all the details but there were red flags early on that I chose to ignore and a few months before our wedding our relationship was at an all time low. I was torn. I had been with this guy for so long, his family was like a second family to me, we had paid a LOT of money already for this wedding, and I was already in my late twenties. But on the other hand, I couldn’t imagine raising kids with this guy based on how he was treating me and I tried to imagine our daily lives knowing how I was feeling. I was doing a lot of soul searching and thinking and praying about what to do. Ultimately, I called off the wedding and ended our relationship. I distinctly remember telling my sister that I might end up being the fun, single aunt for the rest of my life because I didn’t know what the future held or if I would find someone. I can tell you that when I ended things, there were a lot of tears and a lot of people in my life who questioned my decision. They weren’t a part of what I had been experiencing - they just saw things from the outside which looked great. But I can also tell you that I woke up the very next day and felt like a huge weight had been lifted and I could breathe again for the first time in a long time. Just that feeling of peace made taking the risk and calling things off more than worth it. But my story doesn’t end there! A year later I met the man who would become my husband. We couldn’t be more different and we have our struggles and issues like everyone but he is my very best friend! We have so much fun together and he loves and respects me and has been one of the biggest blessings of my life! The risk of walking away felt so scary and uncertain at the time but the fruits of taking that risk have grown into the most beautiful life! We have three precious kids and live a life full of love and joy! So I say, take the risk! Even if it doesn’t work out, you will grown and learn. But if it does work out, oh will it ever be worth it!!"
"Most of the risks I have taken in my life have paid off! But probably the biggest risk I ever took was when I stopped practicing law and started working at a start-up company in a role (or two) that I had no prior experience in. I knew that if I continued to be a lawyer, I would probably not *love* going to work everyday. I also knew, that if I stopped practicing law, I would open up my life (& career) to opportunities that I didn't even know existed yet! In the end, this risk paid off because I found a creative, encouraging, ambitious environment where I am more proud to make something with my team everyday, than I was to be a lawyer."
"There was a time (before it was common) that I left a perfectly good paying job with a solid company without having secured another job to step into. The risk paid off eventually with a job that I enjoyed more and provided me with a significant improvement in lifestyle."
"Both my partner and I were working high paying jobs, where we had leadership roles. We had (still have!) loads of amazing friends, and lived in a beautiful state like Colorado. But, we began to prioritize our lives differently, and therefore we felt we needed to find something new that could bring us more joy. We moved to Amsterdam during the pandemic, and it couldn’t have been more life changing."
We hope you’re able to call on these experiences when a cross-road in life reveals itself, something feels off, or you just think you need something brand new. Risk is scary and uncertain, but some of the very best things in life become clear after stepping out into the unknown.
*Research is from Forbes.