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Why You Should Reconnect With Your Teenage Risk-Taking Brain

“How about we all go bungee jumping after today’s session?”

Whenever I ask corporate learning groups this question, the reactions are pretty predictable: Many people will shut down at the very idea. Some will hesitate and say “maybe…” And then there are a few who will be thrilled by it and ready to go right at that moment.

If everyone were thinking with their teenage brain, however, those percentages would probably be completely reversed.

Adolescent brains have been described as “risk-taking machines.” They go for the rewards and the rush without much consideration of the consequences or the potential threats.

I’m not saying we should all jump off a cliff, but there might be some good reasons to get back in touch with our young thrill-seeking ways.

The Curse of Comfort

In those sessions Ann facilitates, the participants who aren’t excited about the prospect of bungee jumping will say it’s too risky. It’s too uncomfortable even to consider it.

This is a reaction triggered by plenty of work situations, too—a new organizational structure that affects your job, for example, or an opportunity that requires you to step outside your comfort zones and master new skills. Maybe you have a “crazy” idea while brainstorming, but you hesitate to bring it up.

What if I look stupid? What if it doesn’t work? Where’s the certainty? It’s too uncomfortable!

New research suggests that mechanisms in the teen brain, which has often been maligned for its reward-seeking behavior, might be tied to better learning. While more studies need to be done to understand how teenagers learn, there are some lessons about the brain that any of us can apply to reframe discomfort and reduce our fears of risk-taking, change and the unknown.

You can think of one part of your brain as the responsible adult focused on reducing the danger, while the other part acts like the teen who gets a thrill out of taking risks. As an adult, your brain is more fearful of losing than excited about gaining. To build your risk tolerance, you need to balance these contrasting agendas. To do this, you’ll have to change your mindset about discomfort.

Discomfort is a clear sign that something in your life has changed and calls for a new response. It means you’re learning and growing. Learning involves optimal discomfort—tolerating the feeling long enough to learn—because if you’re not a little uncomfortable, then you’re probably not learning. So we should view discomfort as a gift. But instead, we avoid it.

Many people miss great thinking because they don’t tolerate the discomfort of a new situation. If you want to grow, take risks and adapt in an uncertain, constantly changing world, you need to be willing to tolerate discomfort long enough to be informed by it.

Here are four steps to get you started:

1. Notice your resistance

Resistance comes from a lack of metacognition—the awareness of your own thought processes. To increase your awareness, act like a scientist or detached observer, and collect the data points.

Where, exactly, in your body do you feel sensations of discomfort? What thoughts are racing through your head? Shifting into observation mode lowers your resistance to discomfort. And once you’re willing to be uncomfortable, you may find that your discomfort actually decreases.

2. Distinguish between safety and comfort, and then create “just enough” safety

That sense of safety and what you might call readiness is something we often take for granted because it happens over time and sometimes even unconsciously.

You can reduce your fear by doing what you need to do to feel safe—rather than comfortable—during an extreme experience. Think of it like a high-wire circus act. The performers know the risk, so they train for it and have nets and other tools ready in case they lose their balance. Preparation yields confidence.

What processes, procedures and practices do you need to create just enough safety to move through the experience? By noticing your fear, while putting a safety net in place, you can walk the high wire, open up to the thrill and move into new experiences and insights.

3. Ask WIIFM?

When you’re facing a risky situation, ask yourself, What’s in it for me? What do I want to do with this? What’s to be learned? What does this make possible for me? Remind yourself why it’s important to go through the experience. List the benefits.

As you do this, be aware of the brain’s “pattern trap.” Your mind fills in the blanks of a new experience by extrapolating from past experiences. To ramp up your risk tolerance, unhook today from yesterday, and define the present experience as a new experience.

4. Choose your metaphor for discomfort

Risk and discomfort avoidance often come from a fear of the unknown, so try reframing it. Take a cue from explorers, who are drawn to move towards the unknown even when it scares them. Describe your fear of the unknown as the thrill of discovery.

Keep in mind, the moments when you feel most agitated activated and triggered are also the moments when your potential for change is most alive. Learn to recognize these moments, push the pause button on your habitual “grownup brain” response, and make a different choice.

Because when you’re faced with an experience, that’s unfamiliar or overwhelming, you have a choice. One instinctive reaction is to shut down, resist or run away. Another option is to go for the rush.

Go ahead and seek out the thrills. Be a teenage thinker.

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