Why Taking Risks Helps You Grow — and How to Do It
Some of life’s most meaningful moments come from taking a risk, whether it’s applying for a job, going on a first date or learning a new skill.
Still, knowing you want to take a risk is one thing. The ability to tolerate uncertainty and show yourself compassion if you fail is another.
Why you should risk failure
Failure isn’t fun or comfortable. So, why are we risking it again?
Taking risks creates opportunities, enables growth and spurs creativity
In psychology, there are two types of motivations: avoidant and approach. Sometimes you do things because you want to avoid negative outcomes (e.g., failure) and sometimes you do things because you want to achieve positive outcomes (e.g., success).
“We want to live in the space where we embrace challenges where we don’t know if things will work. You get a whole lot of creativity when you stay in that stance; it’s the growth edge of approach motivation,” says Anne Browning, associate dean for well-being at UW Medicine.
Say you want to launch a new project at work, but you’re scared your boss won’t like it or that it won’t perform well. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to improv, but you’re worried you’ll make a fool of yourself.
The avoidant behavior would be to not pitch the project or take the improv class. In this case, you stay safe and avoid unknown or negative outcomes, but you’re also stagnant, which can come with its own discomfort in the form of what-ifs.
The approach behavior is to move toward your goals, even though they come with risks. You might fail, but you will also learn and grow. (Plus, you might just succeed.)
Failure is inevitable, even if you avoid risks
It’s also worth noting that attempting to avoid failure is a losing game. Humans are fallible. We are messy and we make mistakes, so even if you are doing your level best to avoid failure, you will still experience it.
“Failure is a part of any process, especially when you are trying to push yourself to new limits or to do things you haven’t done before,” says Aaron Davis, a graduate student who works with the UW Resilience Lab, which hosts an event series on failing forward.
Accepting the reality that you’ll fail from time to time can help you prepare for missteps so that they are less jarring and can enable you to build resilience.
How to take risks and grow from failure
These four interconnected elements help give you the courage to take risks and the skills to cope with difficult emotions that can arise when you face setbacks.
Failure is often painful because it feels personal. A mediocre performance review can feel like a judgement of your personhood, not just your work.
“The healthiest way to cope with failure is to treat it as an isolated event or outcome. It doesn’t or shouldn’t shine a light on how you feel about yourself as a person,” says Jonathon Brown, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Washington.
You want to reframe failure as an event that occurred, not something that defines who you are. This means failing at something doesn’t mean you’re a failure. We are all bad at things from time to time. This doesn’t make us bad; it makes us human.
One way to reframe failure is to practice unconditional positive self-regard, a concept that comes from positive psychology that basically states self-worth is inherent and isn’t attached to how well you perform, Brown says. For example, you might respond to failure with thoughts like, 'I am a good person who happened to make a mistake' and 'I am a good person who happened to fail at X.'
It also helps to think of failure as a part of the path to success. Davis imagines failure as a pit stop on the road toward your goals. Sometimes you need to refill your tank or check the tires to get where you want to go.
Even if you reframe failure, it can still sting. Self-compassion prevents you from becoming frozen by helping you process what happened.
“What we see is folks have a much better developmental trajectory if they have more self-compassion,” Browning says.
Practice self-compassion by letting yourself notice the emotions that come up after a setback. Your instinct might be to jump to problem-solver mode but try to give yourself the space to acknowledge and experience your feelings.
“The action orientation can be emotional avoidance of just starting over and spinning your wheels instead of saying, ‘Wow, that was rough,’” Browning says. “It helps us stay in an approach state of mind where we continue to try and try again. We see a lot more persistence and resilience if someone will process that cycle instead of avoiding it.”
One way to do this is to give yourself the grace you would give a friend if they faced the same failure or made the same mistake. Think about what you would say to them, and then try to give yourself that same care and tenderness.
Reflect on your emotions and needs
Similar to slowing down enough to be self-compassionate, it’s also worth your while to take a moment to reflect. This can give you some perspective and it can help you learn from what happened.
Try to broaden your perspective and remember that while messing up feels awful, it’s also something that everyone does from time to time. You can ask yourself questions, like: What circumstances or actions led to things going wrong? Is there an opportunity to learn something and move forward?
“You can write this down, put it on notecards, whatever really speaks to you,” Davis says. “Ask yourself, ‘How do I feel?,’ ‘Why do I feel this way?,’ ‘Why am I so worried?’ Then when you’re calmer, you can look at ways you can grow.”
Connect with others
It’s common to feel shame when you fail and to want to hide the mistake from others. But sharing when you’ve messed up can normalize the experience and strengthen your connections.
“It’s the idea of name it to tame it,” Davis says. “Seeing others’ resilience can activate your own.”
It can be particularly powerful when folks in leadership positions share mistakes. (In fact, there’s a psychological phenomenon called the pratfall effect, in which people who are highly competent and make a mistake are viewed more favorably after a misstep.)
Sharing requires psychological safety. But, when possible, it can be an incredibly powerful way to embrace risk and practice compassion.
“It’s about what do we do when things don’t work out. We can sit for a moment together and figure things out and learn from failure,” Browning says.
We all fail, so there’s a sense of community and connection in that experience. It also means you can’t control whether you’ll face a setback. But you can choose how you’ll respond when it happens, and that’s pretty powerful.