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Blessed Be the Risk Takers

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Last week a self-assured, kick-ass student we'll call Jena followed me up to my office after class. 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 to death. She was way out of her comfort zone. It seemed like the best thing to do was drop and takes something else.

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 give up on her coursework:

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, Ph.D., 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.