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Some biologists say that 15-20% of the animal kingdom are sitting down. They are defined as having a passive temperament – “slow to warm” to their surroundings and “often sitting on the sidelines observing”. The other 80% of animals are rovers. They have a more aggressive temperament, making them more engaged with their environment and motivated to take action. Biologists are finding that both personality types have their own evolutionary advantages depending on the situation
David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist from Binghamton University, did some interesting experiments with sitters and rovers. In one study, he placed metal traps in a pond of pumpkin seed sunfish. The rovers, being more active, were the first to check the traps. Consequently, they were the first to be caught. Sitters, because they were more likely to sit sideways, were impossible to catch using these traps.
However, in another experiment, Wilson transported all the fish to a new environment. He found that the rovers were more likely to start investigating their new surroundings and find food. Because of this, the rovers started eating five days before they started landing. In this example, it was the rovers that were most likely to survive.
In some cases, the passivity of the sitters directly led to their survival (especially when their passivity helped to avoid a dangerous situation). But at other times this passivity impairs their ability to adapt to the new environment when necessary.
“Just do it” vs. “Look before you leap.”
In much personal development literature we hear the mantra, “Just do it!” Take the common example of diving into a cold pool. Often, when we try to walk step by step, the cold becomes even more unbearable. This can actually prevent us from acclimating to the temperature quickly enough to take action and become fully submerged. Sometimes it’s easier to just “jump in” and work it out. This is when the usual attitude of a rover becomes more useful.
A lesser known phrase in personal development is “Look before you leap.” This strategy is different from “Just do it”. This means we take a step back and assess our situation more carefully before diving in. Take for example addictive behaviors like gambling or sex. If we always act impulsively (automatically, without thinking) then we tend to engage in these risky behaviors without inhibition. Then we are more likely to end up with an empty bank account or an STD.
Thinking and acting must be balanced.
Sometimes “thinking” gets a bad rep. We hear about people who plan and brainstorm ideas all day long but never do anything productive about them. Maybe we want to approach a girl at a bar, thinking of all the things we want to say, but then we overanalyze the situation and cripple ourselves to never approach. In these types of cases, overthinking can be a bad thing. For some people it is very easy to get “stuck in their head” and never step into their body.
On the other end of the spectrum, too little thinking can often cause us to be foolish or reckless. If we never think about the consequences of our actions, then we can overlook something important and pay the costs later. People who live impulsively (without future projection) tend not to have very positive futures because they fall into mistakes that they could have avoided by being a little more thoughtful and careful.
Smart risk taking.
The balance between thinking and doing will largely depend on what you are trying to achieve.
As I mentioned earlier, approaching a girl at a bar can be something that is easier to “do”. What’s the worst that could happen? Are you going to say something stupid and get embarrassed? Will you be rejected? Maybe the worst case scenario you get hit?
The risks and costs are relatively minimal, so there’s no point in worrying about it. However, some people never face this anxiety because they convince themselves that this little discomfort is the worst thing in the world. This is not smart risk taking – this is wasteful risk aversion. You will probably never see the girl again and she will forget the experience by the end of the week. Don’t make a big deal out of nothing.
The same goes for jumping in cold pools.
Of course, there are other situations we may find ourselves in where the risks and potential costs are much greater. Just like investing your retirement funds. This is something worth thinking about deliberately and making sure you consider every detail before making your decision. Making a mistake here could cost you all the money you’ve saved over the years – that’s a big deal. This is when you need to act smarter, minimize risk loss and try to play it safer. Acting impulsively with your savings is a disaster waiting to happen.
Anxiety and uncertainty.
All risk is the result of uncertainty. The future may be somewhat predictable, but we can never know what will happen. It is often this uncertainty that causes us to experience anxiety before choosing a course of action.
Anxiety is a type of forward thinking – it looks into the future and sees where things are can I’m wrong. We feel anxious before giving a public speech because we don’t know if it will go well or if we might embarrass ourselves.
The same is true for any other type of social anxiety or performance anxiety.
Of course, some anxiety is good. Distinguishing “good anxiety” from “bad anxiety” is an important part of smart decision-making and risk-taking. Sometimes anxiety is an important signal that we should not follow a certain course of action because the possible consequences are too great. Skydiving will usually make us more anxious than petting a rabbit because the risks of skydiving are much higher. When people develop an “irrational” fear of bunnies, it’s usually a sign of an unhealthy phobia—because the fear doesn’t necessarily match the dangers.
Mundane activities (like tying your shoes or taking a shower) usually don’t cause much anxiety because they are more familiar, and therefore you go into it with greater certainty about how the event will unfold. Only if someone has a bad experience in the shower will they develop that anxiety and uncertainty that the bad event might happen again.
Does your anxiety match the risks?
As I mentioned before, anxiety is often considered “irrational” if it doesn’t match the potential risks. Some people fear being in the same room with mustard, even when they realize it poses no real threat. Anxiety can be misaligned with risks depending on a number of things: unfamiliarity with an experience, a faulty belief system, or a traumatic experience.
Some unhealthy anxieties can be overcome by trying to change our thoughts (as in cognitive-behavioral therapy). We can reframe our perspective by looking at a situation from a different perspective.
Sometimes we focus too much on the present moment, but miss the bigger picture.
Let’s go back to the example of approaching a girl in a bar. By now, you can know that it will be totally absorbed if the girl rejects you and embarrasses you in front of your friends. You will be the laughing stock for the rest of the night.
But if you zoom in and see the bigger pictureyou often realize that this event is not as important as you thought.
Imagine yourself at 90 looking back on your college experiences at the bar: would you really care if some girl 70 years ago spilled beer on you, or punched you in the face, or told her friends your catchy line receiving? Certainly not. In fact, you’d probably have more regrets if you never took those small risks in the first place. These little mistakes are what make your life richer (and besides, now you have good stories to tell your grandchildren!)
This is a simple example of how reframing your perspective can give you the freedom to take these small risks. Because they are just that – slightly the dangers. And although you may experience some pain and discomfort in the moment, in the end these short-term costs can often lead to long-term satisfaction.
Very risk averse.
When individuals become highly risk-averse, they are chronic “sitters”—always sitting on the sidelines, never doing anything, and never risking their lives. As we know, sometimes this temperament can be quite useful, but other times it prevents us from adapting to life in a more effective way. It prevents us from personal growth.
Even when we try to avoid taking risk altogether, it is something we cannot completely avoid. Every time we don’t act, we risk missing opportunities to improve our lives. On your deathbed, you may find yourself regretting all those times you didn’t take risks. The “what ifs” can haunt you, and sometimes it’s better to try something and fail (and fail) than never try at all.
In the end, taking a healthy risk is all about balance.
At the end of the day, I think it’s clear that we need to find a balance between risk seeking and risk aversion. We should try to identify times when we need to be more cautious and confident in our decision-making, but also identify other times when it is worth taking risks.
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