In speaking about the relationship between risk and mastery, Steven Kottler, the author of The Rise of Superman, quotes University of Cambridge, England neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian, “If you are interested in mastery, you have to learn this lesson. To really achieve anything, you have to be able to tolerate and enjoy risk. It has to become a challenge to look forward to. In all fields, to make exceptional discoveries you need risk – you’re just never going to have a breakthrough without it” (Kottler, 2014).
Risk is simply part of the process of learning. Avoiding it keeps us attached to the outcome of avoiding failure, as oppose to seeing risk and failure as essential pieces of information that are crucial to the process of learning. This is also why there is an inverse relationship between perfectionism and learning. Those who need to maintain a visage of perfection are unwilling the risks necessary to learn.
So how do you become more tolerant of risk? The best way is to adopt a growth mindset. A growth mindset, originally identified by Carol Dweck, and described in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, means seeing your ability as a malleable entity (Dweck, 2007). Those who have a growth mindset see outcomes as dependent on effort. That is, what you get out is representative of what you put in. If you want a better result, you simply need to apply more effort.
For people with a growth mindset, failure is an impetus to try harder. On the other hand, people with a fixed mindset often see outcome as dependent upon external factors – often out of their control. Fixed mindsets also see ability as a static state, and not one that can be improved. For that reason, fixed mindsets also avoid risk, and when failure happens, tend to also avoid trying again.
As Dweck explains, “When you think about it. This makes sense. If, like those with a growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively. However, if everything is either good news or bad news – as it is with fixed mindset people – distortion almost inevitably enters the picture. Some outcomes are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it, you don’t know yourself at all” (Dweck, 2007).
While a growth mindset is advantageous to really know yourself – and accurately gauge your abilities – it is critical to learning anything. To help develop a growth mindset then, focus your attention on what is in your control (your effort), and ways you can use your effort to affect the outcome.
Then look for ways in which your abilities are malleable, and times that you have been able to improve and advance your skills with effort. Examine the ways in which the outcome after failure hinges on your response to failure (i.e. those who try harder after failure, view failure differently (using is as positive motivation) from those who give up after failure).
Lastly, look for ways in which you can be more open to honest feedback, and understand the relationship between knowing where your abilities lie and accurately choosing challenges that will lead to performance improvements. Growth is not a static state – but rather, tends to exist in an upward helical cycle as our skills advance – knowing just where your skills lie is crucial.
Learning anything depends on a balance between skills and challenges – with the challenge being slighter greater than the skills – it comes with inherent risk. There is a chance that we will overestimate our skills, underestimate the challenge, not perform as we expect ourselves to, or make mistakes. Ultimately, we may fail.
Yet if we avoid risk, we also avoid to opportunity to grow.