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How to train your brain to be more adventurous

Do you feel stuck in a rut? Are you a creature of habit? Here’s how to get better at trying new things.

How to train your brain to be more adventurous
[Photo: Filipe Dos Santos Mendes/Unsplash]
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What does it mean to be adventurous? It means a willingness to take on new challenges and to take on some risk. Both the newness and the risk matter when thinking about whether and how you could learn to be more adventurous.

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In general, when you do something adventurous, you are doing something new. Why do people shy away from new activities? One reason relates to the personality characteristic of “openness to experience.” People high on the openness dimension embrace new opportunities, but those more on the closed end of this dimension shun new things just because of their novelty.

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you generally tend to be a creature of habit? Do you tend to engage in the same activities rather than new ones? Are you likely to find reasons to opt out of new possibilities? If so, then part of what holds you back from being adventurous is that you are mistrustful of new things.

A second component that may drive you away from being adventurous is risk tolerance. Every activity in life has some risk associated with it. Those risks come in many forms. Some are social risks (actions that could lead other people to think worse of you). Some are physical risks (actions that could lead to bodily harm). Some are financial risks (actions that could lead you to lose money). Some are health risks (actions that increase the chance of illness). People have different risk profiles in which they may be willing to take some kinds of risks, but not others.

If there is a particular kind of risk that you generally don’t like to take, then you are unlikely to do something adventurous in that arena. Someone with a lot tolerance for financial risks, for example, may not be willing to invest in stocks that may lose money, even if they have the potential for a big gain.

Given these two factors, what can you do to become more adventurous?

If you tend to be closed to experience, then one thing you can do is to give yourself time to decide about whether to do something new. Your initial reaction toward a new activity is going to be negative, because that is how you feel about new things. But, give yourself a chance to live with the idea of that new activity for a while. After a few days, revisit the opportunity and see whether you still see it in a negative light. You might find that as you get more familiar with the idea, you also become more willing to try it.

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Next, pay attention to the kinds of risks that you tend to avoid. Personally, I am willing to take social risks, I can tolerate a little financial risk, but I am not tolerant at all of physical risks.

In order to become more willing to take risks of a particular type, you need to recognize two dimensions of risk. One dimension comes from ignorance. When you engage in a new activity, you may not know what to expect. As a result, you may not feel prepared to handle events that go badly in that domain. The other dimension involves the controllability of the outcome. No matter how much you know about a particular investment, for example, factors outside of your control will govern whether that investment makes or loses money.

For the risks that make you uncomfortable, learn as much as you can about the situation. That way, you eliminate as much of the risk that comes from ignorance as you can. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, then practice your speech often, get feedback from other people, and even visit the venue where you are going to give your talk. All of those steps give you information about how the talk is going to do that will make it feel less risky.

When you don’t have a lot of control over the outcome, you should start by taking small risks rather than large ones. Don’t dive into investing with a big sum of money. Give yourself some opportunities to experience small failure and see how you feel about them. You may discover that your biggest fear was fear itself. If so, that might make you more willing to do something adventurous in the future.

That said, you might opt to avoid some risks. If a particular activity is going to make you miserable and you don’t really need to do it, then perhaps being less adventurous in that arena is your best bet.