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Posts Tagged ‘risk-taking’

The other day after I got home from my run (I use the term advisedly), I got a call from the local NBC affiliate asking for a quick interview on the overall impact of “girl power”  in this year’s Olympics.  Within ten minutes, the reporter and her cameraman were on their way.

While dashing around the house trying to figure out what to wear — no white, no black, no patterns — and ruing the fact that I never mastered the art of applying makeup, I did some power thinking about what the so-called “year of the woman” means to those of us who have never done a cartwheel and who were always the last to be chosen for volleyball.  (Both would be me.) And what I realized is that the Olympic Games are a good metaphor for a lot of what we call real life.

Wherein we find some real lessons, especially for us women.

Lesson one:  You go for the gold, girl.  First, there’s the good old-fashioned inspiration of the goose-bump variety.  Whenever a woman excels at anything, I’m inspired — even if it’s not my field.  Gabby or Missy or Kerri and Misty?  Talk about motivation.  And yet it’s a message that goes far beyond the pool or the (faux) beach or the balance beam: set yourself a goal, work hard, try your darnedest and anything is possible: You never know what you can do until you take that leap of faith.

For all of us, there’s joy to be found in getting into the Zen of it all, of being totally absorbed in our passions, whether it’s poetry or pole vaulting.  Put yourself out there, throw yourself into your dreams one hundred percent, and the message is this: you just might bring home the gold.

Lesson two:  Fail well.  Or maybe you won’t: put yourself out there, give it your all — and you still might fall flat on your face.  But even if you fail spectacularly, you still win. We write about this a lot:  one of the surest indicators of future success is how good you are at failing. In fact, this year the New York Times reported on some cutting edge school programs based on something called the character strengths inventory that is proving that kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. (Look no further than world gymnastics champion Jordyn Wieber, who failed to qualify for the individual all-around final yet came back to nail her floor exercises.)

Which leads to …

Lesson three: Take the risk.  In other words, failure can often be the world’s best teacher. First, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve taken a risk and lived to tell the tale. And then there’s this: That whole process of trial and error is likely to bring you closer to figuring out your own goals and how to get there.  Maybe you’ll learn from what you’ve done wrong and do it better the next time – or just maybe you can use that failure to rule things out.  If you can see that failure for what it is, just one more step in the never-ending process we call life, you may well learn something that can propel you forward. Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure. But regret? It’s not recoverable.”

That risk-taking, the idea of allowing ourselves the courage to fail?  It’s especially important to today’s women who are often navigating uncharted territory, especially in the workplace.  As Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote, “We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.”

And speaking of running without a roadmap …

Lesson Four: Dispense with the shoulds.  That’s Gloria Steinem’s line, not ours.  More in a bit. I was once asked for advice from a very earnest twenty-something who wanted to know what women trying to make their way into high-stakes careers should do. And my answer was this:  I don’t have any advice — not because I don’t like to dish it out – but because there are no clear cut, one-size fits all answers.   For us, I told her, it’s all too new.  And then I quoted Gloria Steinem, who once told a group of college women: “Dispense with the word “should.” Don’t think about the way women should fit into the world.  Think about how the world should fit women.”

Which brings us back to my soundbyte on the nightly news and perhaps the best lesson of all from the year of the woman.  The reporter asked my take on those women who were owning the non-traditional sports like Judo and weightlifting, breaking through the stereotypes, and what I said was something like this:  “Every time a woman does something a little above and beyond society’s expectations, it opens doors for all of us.  And I think that’s fantastic.”

I was overshadowed, of course, by an interview with a poised young tween in a leotard at a local gymnastics center.  What she said she has taken away from this year’s Olympics is the belief that women can do whatever they want, that they can do just as much as men can.  “I’m motivated,” she said, looking straight at the camera, “to do better than I think I can.”

Girl power, indeed.

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That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Crisis is just opportunity in disguise. The universe/god/buddha doesn’t give us more than we can handle. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. Scar tissue is stronger. The cracks are where the light gets in.

Blah blah blah.

Here’s an interesting question: Which is worse, coming up against one of life’s big bitch slaps only to find all of your nearest and dearest spewing some tired old cliche, or attempting to comfort a friend who has just endured an epic bitch slap of her own using the only thing you can come up with–which happens to be the very same tired old cliche? Even when you really really mean it, even when you know whoever’s saying it to you has only the best intentions, the line–”that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”–just feels kinda lame.

Interestingly enough, however, it turns out to be true.

According to the University of Buffalo’s Mark D. Seery’s paper in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, small amounts of trauma may help people develop resilience. Here’s the gist:

Indeed, a lot of solid psychology research shows that having miserable life experiences is bad for you. Serious events, like the death of a child or parent, a natural disaster, being physically attacked, experiencing sexual abuse, or being forcibly separated from your family, can cause psychological problems. In fact, some research has suggested that the best way to go through life is having nothing ever happen to you. But not only is that unrealistic, it’s not necessarily healthy, Seery says.

In one study, Seery and his colleagues found that people who experienced many traumatic life events were more distressed in general–but they also found that people who had experienced no negative life events had similar problems. The people with the best outcomes were those who had experienced some negative events…

One possibility for this pattern is that people who have been through difficult experiences have had a chance to develop their ability to cope. ‘The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties,’ Seery says. In addition, people who get through bad events may have tested out their social network, learning how to get help when they need it.

One of my clients informed me during our session last week that it was the one year anniversary of her filing for divorce. “It’s been the worst and the best year of my life,” she said. It was the worst for obvious reasons, but she’s also found that she’s stronger and more blessed than she ever thought. She recalled the day one year ago, remembering how sad, angry, and scared she was. I asked her if that her, the one from a year ago, could ever have imagined the her of today. “No way!” she said with a laugh.

A divorce is a big deal, obviously. So is illness, death, job loss, foreclosure, injury. But that doesn’t stop people from forming relationships, taking jobs, buying homes, or snowboarding. The potential for disaster is there, and yet: we’re willing to take the risks.

So maybe the question is, what are we missing out on when we refuse to take a chance? And I’m not just talking about marriage, I’m talking about everything: You don’t want to make a fool of yourself, so you never audition for the community theater. You don’t want to be rejected, so you don’t ask the guy out. You don’t know if you can handle the job, so you don’t throw your hat in the ring for the promotion. You don’t want to look ugly, so you go for decades without ever changing your hairstyle.

I guess the real question is: What are we missing out on when we let the fear of failure determine what we choose to do (or not do) with our lives–and is it worth it?

As Ramini Durvasula, PhD (a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, and director of the psychology clinic and clinical-training program at Cal State Los Angeles) tells us in Undecided:

I always say to my students, ‘You’ll get over a failure, but you will never recover from regret. That’s not recoverable. Go ahead and try a job you might fail at. Go ahead and take some chances.’ Because where these women often get frustrated is with the paths not taken. And what I tell them is that I want them to try a lot of things–and then report back. And that’s frightening, because they still feel very programmed: They want the marriage, the house, the kids, the job–but have absolutely no sense how to get all those things at the same time. And I just don’t think it’s gettable in a single package. Women need to live lives where they’re willing to rule things out. Like I ruled out marriage. But I had to do it to rule it out. What ends up happening is that if you don’t have the realization, you wonder.

And it’s that wondering that’s the killer, not least because it saps the joy out of the life you’re living today. So give that thing you’re wondering about a try. What’s the worst that could happen? Sure, you might fail spectacularly–and you might then be forced to endure some well-intentioned folks and their tired old cliches. But, at least, this time you’ll know they’re right.

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What’s the Occupy Wall Street movement–an ongoing, multi-city protest against corporate greed, cronyism and inequity–got to do with gender politics, you ask? I say: everything.

The movement’s rallying cry is this: We are the 99%. As in, 1% of the population holds the bulk of the wealth and the power in this country, leaving 99% of us struggling to find enough of either to survive.

How did that happen? A case can be made that this inequity is a result of a totally lopsided definition of power, and a completely unbalanced way in which it is valued and exerted in the world. In a world where, for centuries, men have held the bulk of the power and built the very structures of this society unchecked, it’s not difficult to see how we’ve arrived at this point: what we’re seeing is the result of an overvaluation of the masculine strengths–machismo run a-freaking-mok.

As Dr. Judy Rosener told us, there are significant–and proven–differences in the ways men and women operate when they find themselves in a position of power. (Yes, we know, we’re not supposed to say that out loud! After all, if we’re different, one must be better, and one must be…worse, right?) Chief among them:

Women view power as a means to an end to do something; men view power as an end unto itself. Women negotiate in a win-win manner; men negotiate in a win-lose manner.

In fact, the very definition of what it means to have power is a paradigm that’s now, I’d argue, ripe for a serious shift; one that integrates more of the Feminine aspect into the way that power is wielded in the world. When the word power is understood to mean “Power Over,” all but the most powerful are left to find an unempowered place within the system. Whereas another idea–”Power With”–might emphasize collaboration and the empowerment of others, a system that can foster a real sense of ownership and caring.

We dug deeply into this subject in our book, and the more we learned, the more we became convinced. There’s science to back up gender differences in behavior–and there’s statistics to show what happens in corporations where women are included in the highest ranks, the benefits that are reflected in the bottom line.

For example, did you know that, according to Catalyst, companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment? Or that when work teams are equally split between men and women, they are more productive?

Additionally, women are far more willing to go out on a limb and act as the conscience of their organizations. Yes, it’s long been believed that men are the natural born risk-takers, but according to Dr. Rosener, it depends what kind of risk we’re talking about. The kind of risk that one takes with the encouragement of an audience (think Deal or No Deal… or shortsighted shareholders) is the kind at which men tend to excel. The other, which Rosener calls “moral risk,” is the kind that one takes in spite of the audience’s disapproval. And this is the kind at which women excel.

The thing is, historically, women haven’t had much power or position in corporate America. Only a generation ago were want-ads segregated by gender. So it’s no surprise that, as Elizabeth Lesser, author and founder of the Omega Institute, told us:

The feminine has been left out of what we consider to be the most important way of exerting power in the world [and] it’s not thriving in many women, and it’s not thriving in men.

Nor is it thriving in the structures and institutions built by men.

Of course in the opening salvos of women’s migration into the workforce our strategy was to blend in: We were afraid (and rightly so) that if we came at an issue differently, we’d be seen as weak–or worse, tossed out of the boardroom completely. There was a time for blending in. But we’ve shown we can play their game. The time has come to change the rules.

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And so a self-assured, kick-ass student we’ll call Jena followed me up to my office after the first day of class last week.  We made some idle chit-chat for a minute or two and then she got down to it:  She wasn’t sure she was going to stick it out.  Why?  For the first time ever, she confessed, a class had scared her shitless – as in, a knot in her stomach that kicked her clear out of her comfort zone.

To which my only response was this: “That’s terrific.”

Fear can be the best signal that you’re about to grow, to learn something new, to take a taste of something you thought was beyond you.  Harness it, and it’s often a source of power.  It’s all about stretching the muscles, as Salon’s Cary Tennis wrote to a teary grad student who was ready to flick it all in:

It hurts. You feel weak at first. Then you keep doing it and you get the muscles. Then you can do things you couldn’t do before.

It will always hurt a little. If it doesn’t hurt a little you’re not doing it right.

Love that. All of which got me thinking about the danger of the comfort zone, that safe little territory that keeps us from taking risks.

Now, you’ll never catch one of us (okay, me) jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.  Or white-water rafting.  Or even climbing to the top of a ladder.  But the two of us do share a healthy love of the kind of risk-taking that pushes women to throw themselves out there, to make those leaps of faith that get us past our initial fears.  In fact, what we believe is that the minute we realize we’re afraid to do something new, afraid to ask for what we want, maybe that’s precisely when we should jump out of the proverbial plane.  Men do that. Why shouldn’t we?

Take the case of Abby, a smart twenty-something we interviewed for our book.  She started out in journalism, left that gig for a job doing PR for a nonprofit, and then traded that one for a job doing PR for another nonprofit. She loved the job at first, but soon outgrew it, and interviewed for two new jobs – one that was merely good, and the other that was great.  She felt good about both interviews, and put in her two-weeks notice.  Risky business, right? That same day, she was offered the merely good job – but heard nothing from the great one.  So she played some guts ball.  She turned down the offer from the merely good job – and waited for an offer for the job she really wanted.  A few days later, it came.

Clearly, it could have gone either way.  But she made a choice, took a risk, and look how it turned out.

The conventional wisdom is that risk-taking is linked to testosterone, that women aren’t all that good at it.  But what we wonder is this: is risk-taking defined solely in terms of skateboarding without a helmet or driving too fast on curvy roads?  And is it nature or nurture, in that we girls have been conditioned to believe that our role is to play it safe?  Have we been too protected by doting parents who decided their role was to save us from ourselves?

Boys will be boys, but girls should be safe?

A recent study out of Columbia University suggests that gender disparities when it comes to risk taking may be different than what we assume.  It’s all pretty complex, writes Rick Nauert PhD, Senior News Editor of Psych Central:

Men are willing to take more risks in finances. But women take more social risks—a category that includes things like starting a new career in your mid-30s or speaking your mind about an unpopular issue in a meeting at work.

The researchers say that experience greatly influences the type of risk-taker a person may become and this explains why women and men perceive risks differently.

“If you have more experience with a risky situation, you may perceive it as less risky,” [said Bernd Figner, Ph.D., who cowrote the paper with Elke Weber, Ph.D]

Differences in how boys and girls encounter the world as they’re growing up may make them more comfortable with different kinds of risks.

Stuff to think about, right?  Meanwhile, back to Jena.  Day two, there she was.  Sitting front and center, flashing me a smile.  Giving it a shot.  And looking confident, indeed.

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Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask!

How many times have you used that very line, psyching up a friend before sending her into the field of battle, whether the battlefield be the boss’ office over a raise or a promotion or just a couple of days off, or the next cube over, daytime home of The Guy, the one she wants to get to know a little bit better–preferably in a setting with more favorable lighting? Dishing it out is one thing, but how often do we take that advice ourselves?

I bring this up because, this weekend, an Undecided reader shot me a link to a story entitled “Get What You Want: How to Make the Big Ask,” and the piece in question made me think. In it, the author Andrea Buchanan recounts an epic ask from her own life: minding her own business at LAX, en route to San Francisco for a party celebrating the publication of her first book, Buchanan spotted NYT columnist Maureen Dowd–a pretty serious Boldface-Name Sighting to begin with, made more so because Dowd happens to be one of Buchanan’s personal heroes. She wanted to tell Dowd how much she admired her–she wanted to invite her to the book party… And she did. (Via handwritten note. But still, points for balls ovaries!) And lo: Dowd not only came to the party, she left the party a couple of copies of Buchanan’s book heavier… and invited Buchanan to lunch! Talk about a risk that paid off. Here’s what Buchanan has to say about it:

I shudder to think of what an awesome connection I would have missed making had I not worked up the nerve to approach Maureen. But all too often, fear gets in the way of bravery. Think about it: When was the last time you asked for something with big risks and potentially big consequences?

…Here are a few things I’ve learned about asking: The minute you’re afraid to ask for something is when you should do it. It’s nice to offer something in return, even if it’s just a compliment or a kind gesture. It also helps to take a few deep breaths and imagine the worst possible outcome. Usually, it’s simply getting a no, which is not exactly life threatening.

I love that she says that the minute you’re afraid to ask is exactly when you should, because, while I don’t think fear is like guilt in terms of uselessness, I do think it’s one of those poor, misunderstood emotions that isn’t always what it seems–and that, just because a situation inspires fear doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth being afraid of. Maybe the purpose of that fear isn’t necessarily to power an about-face followed by a prompt escape; maybe it’s just a little note to self: take notice of this, tread carefully here, be conscious now.

Now, I confess, I’m a bit of a daredevil. I’ve been known to park in red zones, jump out of planes, try my friend’s homemade kimchee. And perhaps I’m a rarity among my gender in that way–a monster story in last week’s New York Magazine suggested that testosterone and risk-taking are pretty clearly linked… and that the whole Wall Street meltdown may have been avoided had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters. I don’t know about all that, but I do know that, putting ourselves out there, identifying what we want and asking for it is, indeed, a risk. But maybe there’s a little bit of a lesson to be learned from the adrenaline junkies of the world, articulated oh-so-well by that vintage Nike ad campaign: maybe all that’s standing between ourselves and the objects or opportunities of our desire is a simple decision to Just Do It. Just ask.

What’s the worst that could happen?

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