When doing an educational psychological evaluation, using an “IQ” test, among other instruments, I look for many aspects of the student’s performance. Among them is always consideration of the child’s willingness or unwillingness to take a chance when unsure. How long, if ever, will it take a child to just announce “I don’t know” when s/he doesn’t? And, does saying “I don’t know” cause distress or even shame? It’s always painful for me when learning that a child–or an adult–feels it is terrible and shameful if they don’t know something and that, in their head, anyway, they are expected to know and be able to do everything.
When this is the case, I include this observation of the student in my report and most often also the recommendation that the parents begin to make comments like, “Oops, I made a mistake,” or “I think I should have done that differently,” or other similar type remarks that their child can hear so that the child begins to understand that making mistakes is not a big deal and that everyone–even adults–makes mistakes. If anyone believes that it’s possible to get through life without making mistakes, they are setting themselves up for many upsets and heartaches.
To illustrate, please consider the following situations:
Scott, a friendly, lively third-grader is stuck for a moment. His teacher has asked for a student to give the answer to last night’s math homework. He’s not sure if his answer is correct; should he or shouldn’t he raise his hand?
Jennifer, a high school senior, is applying to colleges. In her heart of hearts she wants to go to Stanford. She knows it’s a “push.” She wants to send in that application, but what happens if she doesn’t make it?
Mark has been offered a very exciting job opportunity with great potential. Oh, he’s so tempted. However, taking it means giving up a steady income for an unknown. What shall he do?
The above situations, plus many others that we face just about every day, all center around the issue of risk taking. And, in essence, what does taking a risk mean? It means, can I afford whatever I will lose, forfeit, give up, if I fail? And this can mean losing face or something more concrete.
This is a very serious question and the answer we choose is really a reflection of how much we have, so to speak, in the “bank account” of ourselves. In Scott’s case, to what extent will he feel diminished by giving a wrong answer? Will it just be “okay” and then waiting for the correct answer so that he can learn something or will it be “Oh no, I’m so stupid?”
Is Jennifer’s rejection from Stanford going to result in “I feel like a fool. Who did I think was sending in that application in the first place?” or, “Well, I’m glad I tried. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” As for Mark, at the prospect of the new job not panning out, what does he imagine? “I’m doomed. I’ll never get another job as good as the one I gave up” or, “No sweat. With my skills and experience, something good will come along pretty soon.”
People who are willing to take risks on a regular basis are people who have high “self” bank accounts. They know that if a “withdrawal” (a failure) is made, there are lots more to draw from. And, perhaps even more significant, they believe that they have the ability to produce, create, and raise more of their own “good stuff” to replenish and even enlarge the account. Being able to take risks is a good thing. It’s one of the qualities that define a person with high self-esteem. And, to quote Jack Canfield (of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series), “If you think about it, everything you did that moved you ahead in life, involved taking a risk.” There are no guarantees that when you shoot for the basket, you’ll score. The only guarantee is that if you don’t shoot, you’ll never score.
The next time you’re tempted to take a risk and you’re finding it difficult to go ahead, I suggest the following:
1. Recall all the times in your life when you did take that risk and enjoyed a successful outcome.
2. Think of how you’ll feel if you let the opportunity pass. If that’s pretty bad, avoid that bad feeling by going ahead (I developed this technique for myself and I’ve found it has really helped me propel myself into new arenas).
3. Remember, you can never learn less, thus any experience is never really a failure, but a lesson.
4. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, relax, and keep repeating, “Oh, what the heck, do it anyway.”
Taking risks is one of the best ways to grow, to learn about the world, and to learn about yourself. So, GO FOR IT!
By Nancy Silverman Zweibach
Nancy Zweibach can be contacted at