As a professional bike racer, I loved taking risks. And not just any risks — leap-off-a-cliff-type risks. I approached big races, technical descents, and dangerous jumps by ignoring my fear. Instead, I often listened to the voices around me urging me on.
Taking extreme risks led me to national titles — and a sense of invincibility. Even outside of biking. I charged into whitewater rafting and backcountry-skied in avalanche terrain.
I was surrounded by people who leaned in to adrenaline. We had varying degrees of concern about the real dangers: Many of my peers took even greater risks than I did, which in my mind validated the decisions I was making. My mindset normalized dangerous behavior. In this risk-oriented environment, my brain and body adapted. I bent to the expectations.
Then, in 2018, I crashed in three races. The wipeouts culminated in a gnarly, cumulative concussion. Expecting the effects to fade in a week with just a blip in my competitive season, I fell into the familiar approach of muscling my way through the injury. But as weeks of recovery accumulated, I begrudgingly accepted that healing would not be quick or linear. I spent the next eight months taking two healing steps forward, one painful step back
In retrospect, I am thankful for those months. I was forced to slow down. My risky, whirlwind lifestyle was put on hold; I had no choice but to rest, put my phone away, work as little as necessary, and listen to my body.
I once believed racing bikes had prepared me for any risk. But when I was forced to listen to my injured body, I realized this new challenge required a significantly different and more nuanced type of bravery — one that was foreign to me.
The Upside of Risk
“Risk” is a loaded word. In some cases, it carries negative connotations: financial risk, health risk, risk of injury. In other instances, it’s flush with possibility, adventure, the promise of discovering something new. Or it can be empowering, such as when we bravely stand up for ourselves or others when people around us are silent.
“Risk is anything that includes going beyond your comfort zone and has potential dangers,” says Grant Holicky, a cycling and swim coach based in Boulder, Colo. “Taking risks pushes us to the edge of what we know. Without risk, we can’t really grow.”
There are negative and positive risks, but it’s worth noting that a positive risk may not have a good or desirable outcome, and a negative risk may not have a bad or dangerous outcome.
There are negative and positive risks, but it’s worth noting that a positive risk may not have a good or desirable outcome, and a negative risk may not have a bad or dangerous outcome. In fact, the outcome may be irrelevant: “Positive” and “negative” describe the intention and consideration behind an action, not its eventual success or failure.
Positive risk involves considering the benefits and potential dangers — and then acting because the benefits outweigh the concerns.
Negative risk, on the other hand, involves taking an action without fully considering potential consequences.
Positive risk-taking has two chief benefits, according to Natasha Duell, PhD, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies risky behavior in adolescents. The first is strengthening resilience: learning to recover from, cope with, and grow from failure (see “The 5 Best Ways to Build Resiliency” for more). The second is building self-confidence to take future positive risks.
In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Duell and her team clarified positive risk-taking as something that benefits the individual’s well-being (a person may gain something); its potential costs are mild (there is no threat to health or safety); and it is socially acceptable.
Conversely, negative risk-taking is considered dangerous — possibly with severe negative outcomes — or illegal.
“Daring and risk-willingness activate and challenge the brain’s capacity and contribute toward learning, coping strategies, and development.”
Although Duell’s research focuses on young people, these benefits of taking positive risks transcend age. They don’t diminish as we get older, experts say; older people are just less likely to engage in risky behaviors. (More on that later.)
It’s important to “stop regarding daring and risk-willingness simply as undesirable and uncontrolled behavior patterns,” says behavioral analyst Dagfinn Moe, a senior research scientist at SINTEF in Trondheim, Norway. “Daring and risk-willingness activate and challenge the brain’s capacity and contribute toward learning, coping strategies, and development.”
We each view risky behavior in different ways, and the first step toward understanding it is to break from the belief that it automatically equals jumping off a cliff. “It doesn’t have to be a complete adrenaline rush to be pleasurable or beneficial,” says paramedic and ski patroller Kim Dalen.
“Life is inherently risky,” writes Kayt Sukel in The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance. Making decisions is a cornerstone of adult life, and everyone takes small risks multiple times daily. Whether you’re deciding what to have for breakfast, debating whether to take a new job, or booking a thru-hike for your next vacation, risk exists on a spectrum.
“All of us have the power within us to use risk to our advantage. It’s not just the stuff of superheroes [and legends]: Risk is the key to learning and growth for all of us.”
What all risk has in common is being “a decision or behavior that has a significant probability of resulting in a negative outcome,” writes Sukel.
“We are all, each and every one of us, risk-takers. Because risk-taking is part and parcel of everyday decision-making, and it’s a process, not a trait. All of us have the power within us to use risk to our advantage,” she notes. “It’s not just the stuff of superheroes [and legends]: Risk is the key to learning and growth for all of us.”
The Tides of Risk Tolerance
What constitutes a risk is personal: Risk tolerance varies among individuals and can even ebb and flow throughout a lifetime. Genes, biological age, life experience, and cultural influences all contribute to our own sense of risk tolerance.
- Genes: In a 2013 study, genetics researcher Cynthia Thomson, PhD, recruited 503 skiers and snowboarders for psychological and genetic tests, as well as to assess their sports-specific risk-taking behavior. She zeroed in on a gene called DRD4, which is involved in the development and function of the brain’s dopamine receptors. A single variation in the coding of this gene had been previously associated with sensation-seeking behavior, including substance use.
Sure enough, participants in Thomson’s study with this DRD4 variant also displayed more risk-taking behavior on the slopes.
Yet higher-risk athletes didn’t score high on impulsivity, says Thomson, indicating that their decisions — even ones that could be deemed reckless — were calculated and intentional.
- Age: Research has shown that biological age is also a predictor for risk tolerance. Specifically, most people become more risk averse as they get older, and experts agree that the tipping point is around age 25, when the brain reaches maturity.
Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, MD, author of The Developing Mind, explains that adolescents experience a greater willingness to take risks and seek out new things than they did before the age of 12 or will have after their mid-20s. “Adolescence is a period of remodeling of the brain,” he says. “You’re basically going from being a generalist as a child to being a specialist during adolescence.”
One change occurs in the dopamine reward system of the brain: During adolescence, the baseline levels of dopamine are lower than in childhood and adulthood, but the dopamine-release amounts are higher. “One of the major things that releases dopamine is novelty,” Siegel explains, which draws adolescents to choices that are “uncertain and potentially dangerous.”
Another change is the development of “hyperrational thinking,” which highlights the positive aspects of a choice while minimizing the negative.
In young brains, excitatory cells are primarily active, and inhibitory cells are inactive, notes neurobiologist Sandra Kuhlman, PhD. Excitatory activity is important for learning and development, and inhibitory cells help the brain filter information and control behavior. “The inhibitory cells — the traffic-cop cells — don’t fully come online until after adolescence,” she explains.
Experts note that encouraging positive risks for young people can help them keep taking risks. For people in their late 20s and beyond, taking risks can become harder. But even if you are — or have become — risk-averse, it’s never too late to try.
- Life Experience and Cultural Influences: From birth, we’re taught what is considered acceptable risk according to our parents, communities, educators, peers, and the media, which all contribute to our understanding and assessment of dangers and benefits.
Traveling to new locales, sustaining an illness, recovering from an injury, and starting a family also play roles.
Expanding Your Comfort Zone
It’s likely you’ve been given the well-intentioned advice to get out of your comfort zone. It’s also likely, particularly if you’re risk-averse, that you’ve ignored that advice. After all, your comfort zone is comfortable — it’s a zone of minimal stress and a sense of security.
“The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position,” writes Judith M. Bardwick, PhD, in Danger in the Comfort Zone. It’s natural to want to operate here.
“The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position.”
Yet the comfort zone can limit us. Growth requires something called “optimal anxiety” — a state of slightly heightened stress.
Take note of the word “slightly” here: Too much stress, and performance drops off quickly. There’s a Goldilocks zone of discomfort — too much or too little discomfort, and you won’t really get anywhere. To expand your comfort zone, you want to seek out the “just right” amount of discomfort.
What does this have to do with risk? Well, positive risk-taking offers a path toward productive discomfort.
Overcoming Fear of Failure
Many people avoid taking risks not because they fear for their physical safety but because they fear failure, explains psychotherapist Sandra Gaskill, MS, EdS, LPC. That’s because we live in a society that celebrates success and undervalues anything perceived as less-than.
That’s a shame, Gaskill says, because failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.
“The human brain does not learn much from success; the human brain learns from failure,” says Holicky. “If we do something that doesn’t work, our brain will assess what we did wrong and how we can do better. That failure allows us to grow in maturity, in athletic ability, in love — in every aspect of our lives.”
“The human brain does not learn much from success; the human brain learns from failure.”
As a coach and a dad, Holicky helps people bypass the fear of failure by reconsidering their goals. “When I am encouraging people to do something new or different, often the end goal isn’t the whole goal. The idea is that what you’re doing is a point on the path of where you ultimately want to be, which is always much bigger than the individual moment of failure.”
Running a 5K or moving to a new town may be the specific goal, but the larger goal might be to broaden your horizons and build confidence. When you expand the scope, suddenly one goal becomes a step toward the bigger, broader goal.
Such a reframe often helps people lower their perception of risk to a more approachable level. “One of the ways to encourage risk is to sit down and have a logical conversation about what the worst-case scenario will be,” Holicky explains. “How will that make you feel and how will it affect your life? Is it a failure in your eyes or a failure in everyone else’s eyes? Can you let this moment move you toward a broader goal?”
Our unique emotional landscapes can provide intuitive clues for risk assessment, but this introspective process may feel nebulous — at least at first. The U.S. Air Force, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Defense use many tools to assess risk, including the severity, probability, and exposure (SPE) risk-assessment matrix (see the table below).
Johanne Albrigtsen is a field scientist who uses the tool daily in her work in Denali National Park and Preserve, where she spends frigid winters with a team of scientists and sled dogs. The team operates in vast, barely accessible areas in temperatures as low as -45 degrees F with limited sunlight. The SPE matrix helps her rate risk levels.
If Albrigtsen needs to cross a frozen river where she could break through ice, the severity of that risk according to the matrix might be:
Catastrophic (5), the probability might be rare (1), and the exposure might be above average (3). The formula’s result of 15 (5 x 1 x 3) means the risk is acceptable and one she can take.
The formula is applicable on a range of scales. For example, you might be considering signing up for your first open-water swimming race. While you may initially be nervous, the risk assessment may help you feel more confident.
The Risk Assessment Matrix
|1. Below Average
|3. Above Average
|5. Very Likely
|Attention Needed/Proceed With Caution
Using the tool can help you understand how you relate to risk. Do you tend to catastrophize about situations that are likely safe? Or do you overlook some of the risks and agree to situations that are actually dangerous?
Try recalling a few risks you’ve faced in your life and whether you decided to go through with them or to step back. Then use the tool to see where you land: The results may offer an opportunity to calibrate your approach to risk.
Risk assessment is not always a yes-or-no, all-or-nothing situation. We all often let external voices and pressures cloud our judgment. To some degree, the pressure I perceived from my peers influenced how and when I took risks when racing my bike.
“If you have learned that specific risks are the ones you should take, and if you don’t, you will not be loved or successful or good enough, then you might push yourself to take those risks even if you’re getting some intuitive hit that they aren’t safe,” explains Gaskill.
External voices can nudge us into an unsafe and unreasonable situation; they can also force us to play it too safe and miss out on the benefits of pushing the limits.
That’s not to say other people’s opinions aren’t valuable — they just don’t need to hold more weight than your own. External voices can nudge us into an unsafe and unreasonable situation; they can also force us to play it too safe and miss out on the benefits of pushing the limits.
In recalibrating our relationship to risk, this question might be helpful: Is this decision mine?
Differentiating between external opinions or forces and our own internal voices can help build confidence around a decision.
As Brené Brown, PhD, MSW, notes in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead: “There’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.”
As for me, I returned to cycling nine months after my injury, and I still race today. Sometimes I choose to jump my bike off a cliff; sometimes I don’t. Risk, I’ve learned, is about more than making the leap — and it’s about more than taking the dare despite my fear or better judgment.
What’s changed for me is that I’ve come to a new understanding around how I make decisions, and much of the fearlessness I once embraced is no longer worth the risk.
It can be brave to jump off a cliff — and it can be just as brave to not jump off that cliff.
5 Risk-Assessment Questions
Pausing to reflect before taking a risk may help you untangle the options and find a clearer answer.
Asking yourself these questions may aid you in your decision-making process.
- What do I stand to gain by taking this risk?
- What do I stand to lose?
- How does the possibility make me feel?
- How do I want to feel?
- Is this decision mine?
This article originally appeared as “What’s the Risk?” in the June 2022 issue of Experience Life. It includes additional reporting by Maggie Fazeli Fard, an Experience Life senior editor.