Risk, Regret or Run!

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If we agree that safety’s an illusion, or if we crave a challenge here and there to expand the stuff we’re made of, we’ll not take risks lightly. If we lack awareness of our brain’s wheelhouse for making life-changing risks however, we’ll sense danger lurking, and may miss its handmaiden opportunities.

We may make sure someone is watching our back.  We may pray, and trust God in risky situations. Yet, why do we still tend to cringe and run when risks challenge our routines?  It’s true that gamblers take blind risks that lead to regrets. It’s also true that in a recent survey, many seniors most commonly stated regret was the fact they had not taken more risks in their lives.

Healthy challenges awaken our unique capabilities, along with a caution that risks can lead to great victories or defeats. In order to get to the place we most want to be we take a chance to trust ourselves enough to test the playgrounds and graveled difficulties of any task we can lose ourselves in, before we dare to place our hearts on the line with its demands.

What risk did you take recently to trigger change and how did that risk work out? Let’s face it, we need courage to learn, grow, or risk much of anything. No wonder seniors stated regret they hadn’t taken more risks during their lives. Sadly, not doing anything becomes a far more consequential risk in any life.

How would you help a person in your circle who has given up on risk-taking as a path toward healthy change? How do you reboot your personal mojo for risks?

Risk taking depends on dopamine chemicals, and each time we take wise risks, we increase dopamine levels to get us there successfully. Our brain comes with fine equipment to take risks, even when we feel uncomfortable making that leap across any steep chasm. Plasticity (or the brain’s ability to change itself) is an assurance that change can and will happen.  When we choose a clearly stated change and then take a proactive step in the direction of one clearly laid out change goal, our brain’s plasticity kicks in with observable changes.

That’s why brain experts assure us that when our brains are more plastic we’re happier, more productive and fun to be around! The opposite of a plastic brain is a rigid, opinionated, or stuck-in-a-rut brain. Specific words and actions we choose will determine which mental state (plastic or problematic) gets shaped, rooted and operational in our brains.

I like to illustrate plasticity as our brain’s ability to change itself in a little character I’ve named PLAS.  This character show how plasticity occurs when we deliberately act differently. The iconic namungo,  PLAS (short for plasticity) may be a fictitious character yet holds real brain parts. One of six namungos that show inner workings of our brains, PLAS illumines a brain’s enormous capacity to change in a way that awakens us to a dare’s delight.  It helps us energize improvements to face problems with possibilities. Let’s say the problem is that we worry or feel upset with family, peers or friends. PLAS helps us to act in ways that replace worry with wonder for a far finer day with more mental wellbeing at our helm!

What deliberate action would bring your choice of these?

We simply act – and the brain does the rest to get new results that replace old neuron pathways and head us toward our targets.

Before Michael Merzenich became the world’s leading researcher on neuro-plasticity, cynics with hard science credentials insisted brainpower and intelligence are fixed and plasticity fictitious. Thanks to persistence and the power of innovation, we now know that learning and leading not only increases one’s intelligence, but also changes the very structure and operation of the brain itself.

Step toward targeted change and plasticity does the rest.

Hit on this image to find activities that engage plasticity

It’s no coincidence that even the father of plasticity learned this need for risk-taking the hard way, as many of us do.

Paul Bach-y-Rita, famous for his work in neuroplasticity,   tells of his father’s crippling stroke in New York. After a month’s therapy and little progress, medical experts assured the family that no more could be done, and suggested Bach-y-Rita be sent to an institution. Brains cannot repair themselves every medical leader argued and nothing else could help their 65 year old father to walk or talk again.

The scholar went from well respected professor at City College in NY to complete dependency on others for his basic needs.

One son, George brought his Papa back to Mexico and began to teach him to crawl again. Using the wall to support his limp shoulder, Bach-y-Rita, inched along clumsily for months, as he and his sons created marble games that required a reach and movement to play on the floor. Cynics in medical schools warned that this was wasted time, and neighbors criticized the Bach-y-Rita family when their papa crawled outside, saying, “They are treating this old man like a dog.”

With every spark of progress, the boys persisted more to help their papa do acts on the opposite side of his weakness and loss.

Then progress began to show, as the brain reorganized itself to take over where damaged parts destroyed abilities. After many more months of crawling and learning to talk again, and through the same painful building of new neuron pathways for language to take over where damaged brain cells failed, Bach-y-Rita returned to teach at City College in New York, at 68, and three years after his stroke.

We can improve our lives in difficult areas, and reshape prosperity, when we recognize the brain’s proclivities to progress. When we simply risk and persist on the other side of loss.

Younger son, Paul’s life was shaped by what he described as seeing with our brains and not our eyes, as his papa’s brain reorganized itself for new directions. He went on to explain a great deal of the foundations that move research forward today in areas of plasticity – or the brain’s ability to rewire and find solutions when cynics and naysayers shout words of doom and disaster.

What areas are weakest for you in this tough climate of loss and change? How could your brain’s plasticity help to reorganize itself to become the solution you seek today? How might you find inspiration to move forward, as one Mexican family did in their worst of times?

Do you have a plastic or rigid brain?

Choices and their follow-up actions tend to determine mental fuels for angst or adventure as illustrated below. We don’t need to snatch up a spare seat on a rocket ship, sky dive without a parachute or join a gang for thrillers. Our exhilarating free fall towards astonishing new experiences comes after we make choices that illustrate an awareness of how our odds are always stacked in gravity’s favor. Nor do we need to flirt with disaster in order to risk adventures that add spice.

Regardless of thorns, risk-takers choose to pick extraordinary roses in spite of pricks they’ll get When we start small and embrace surprises in our day, we lay down new neural connections that help us afford to roll the dice. Keeping in mind that nothing novel comes out of being ordinary, magnates swim into deeper waters to gain a greater experience, and so can we. In so doing, we set up a powerful cycle of personal growth and increase our willingness to launch into risks.

Adventures, opportunities and rewards often lie in waiting, just beyond our field of vision, unless we begin to test our wings and confront risk tactically. Yes, this may mean we run from familiar comforts that fail to help ourselves or our world.  

It takes mental muscle to live with uncertainty where we can least predict possible woes. Yet, have you ever considered that life itself is inherently risky from dawn to dusk? When we choose safety at all costs we place ourselves unprepared at the mercy of inevitable and uncertain risks of life.  Just like those many seniors, who regretted too few risks taken during their lives, unprepared and unwilling, we get tossed and tumbled with unpredictable winds of change.

We track our plasticity by tracing evidence of our contentment

The key is to know when to take risks. No need to begin as if we’re an elf in a Grim fairy tale climbing latest whimsy to secure the treasure of a golden ring. When we believe that life offers more wonder than ruts and routines, we advance as our confident selves, sidestepping those who see our steps as showboating, and beyond those who’d rather we simply play it safe at all costs.

When we give ourselves permission to do something we’ve never done before we also cast nets wider and fulfill passions and purpose worthy of a finer legacy. As we become comfortable taking risks, we also get quicker at moving on from shortcomings and failures. We begin to live a life of excellence, regardless of age or situation. We climb new mountains beyond scary shortcomings that held us back in past, we cling to courage and aspire to enjoy excellence.

See PLAS namungo’s role above

Risks make us win, or make us learn new skills and grow stronger. Either way, we benefit when we step toward dreams worth daring to attain.

Life’s trials may test us, and shape us, they don’t need to rob who we are. We can resist fear for the rewards and treasures of winners, who risk slip ups today, knowing that life is a series of experiments and that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

Even when we feel averse to adventure, and in spite of dares that didn’t go as planned, we each hold a warehouse of tools in our minds to help us take risks that lead to freedom, fun and exhilaration. It’s our reflection about problems or possibilities which provides a positive or negative result. Sure, if we toss all our talents in one ring, any dare may be a dangerous one.

For Helen Keller and for us, there is no adventure in living a life without risk. Her caution that life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all, reminds us not to grow timid and squeamish by not daring at all. To sit around, think about risking only when things are perfect is to immerse ourselves in all facets of a tumultuous outcome, far short of Keller-like ambitions.


I’ve found that pathways of liberating grace often add laugh lines of success far faster than seductive grinds of fear and worry that can last a lifetime and lead to failure. Putting our skills and shortcomings out there is one of the biggest risks we take and it takes guts to be that vulnerable. We learn to love what works, rather than fear what does not.

At some point, we may have to forgive past stumbles and unhinged fears, in order to embrace brave new challenges that land us on higher ground. Unwilling to take risks means far fewer opportunities to win and help those around us to do the same.

 Risk-taking offers a force of courage and humility that radiates from the inside out.  Let’s face it, most ventures worth pursuing come with their fair share of risks, and may be costly, but they pay dividends in courage too. And have you noticed that humility offers us that secret sauce with nothing left to prove to anybody and with courage overflowing in ourselves?

OK, it’s time for me to put my own suggestions into practice and take a new risk! I followed the following steps:

1). I identified one area I see as broken, in that we celebrate violence and war, yet fail to learn robust peace possibilities in order to improve benefits for all concerned.

2). I reflected on one risk I could take to contribute to an improved situation where war and conflicts currently exist. That risk includes using my writing and brain based skills to articulate a solution, which may not be popular but may well offer new possibilities.

3). Finally I crafted an article titled, War or Peace, Our Brain’s Perspective, and I plan next to use these facts gathered to extend my brain based proposal for peace keeping into an op-ed for a national paper.

My oped below is my risk for today – what is yours?

Type the word PEACE into Libby.com audio books and only 55 audio titles appear. Type WAR into the same data base and a whopping 986 titles bounce back. No wonder we rarely showcase peace, while we re-enact battle after battle on endless war platforms.  At schools and colleges we read, study and analyze endless books on battles and find far too few books to foster diplomatic options when battles arise.

Active peacekeeping literally changes the chemistry of our brains. Cultivate peacekeeping tools and we advance life-giving opportunities across opposing views. To raise peacekeeping awareness and try out its tactics would be the highest way to honor our beloved service people and keep peace alive as our gift of gratitude. 

A peaceful mindset starts within each of us and holds an enormous capacity to change lives around us. Yet we endure endless destructions of war, with little consideration of amity. Leo Tolstoy accuses war of being an antichrist in War and Peace. It’s wicked ways continue to ignite infernos as described in, The Crisis of Peacekeeping: Why the UN Can’t End Wars, by Séverine Autesserre, in this month’s Foreign Affairs.

Autesserre argues that peace requires knowledge, yet when knowledge includes mindfulness, action offers sovereignty over our minds.  Embedded in an encouraging smile of one person, a kind gesture from another, harmony starts within each of us. Without new neural discoveries, robust peacekeeping lacks punch to grow mental tools that transform anxiety and pain into beauty and freedom.

Contrast the peaceful setting and heartwarming outcomes that arose in Gander, Newfoundland and New York City on 9/11. Gander citizens pulled together to support passengers on an airplane diverted away from 9/11, and New York suffered catastrophic results of aircraft deliberately steered into buildings to kill passengers on the same day.

It’s time to question what we can do to generate the kind of peace that UN missions seem unable to accomplish. Haphazard peace efforts that inform modern policymakers continue to fail us. Beyond UN peacekeeping missions that serve political purposes, mindful answers exist that help us question human interests and propose caring options. Dali Lama proposes peace along paths of mindfulness developed within each of us daily. New neuro discoveries show how every kind, loving, compassionate or altruistic action lays down a new neuron pathway for more of the same calm connections going forward.

Cultivate a few brain-related fundamentals of peacekeeping, and we create harmony around us in the form of hopeful guidebooks to cross bridges into opposing views. Awareness of events and our growing ability to use peaceful actions, begin to transform our mental states. We mimic that kind response from family members who trust us beyond any miscommunication, and extend respectful exchanges where peace connects personal inner compassion with hope-filled actions.

UN members claim that part of the war mongering problem is insufficient contributions from global members. Without question, a lack of resources offers a fair excuse. A far larger problem however, is a lack of awareness of peaceful capabilities within every normal human brain. It may start with supporting local actors in peacekeeping leadership roles, yet it also includes more lived experiences of peacekeepers that transform our personal and collective missions.

Yet sadly, in more than 50 conflict zones globally, it’s estimated that over half a billion people live with a daily threat of violence. The UN attempts to enforce order yet their blue-helmeted troops of more than 78,000 soldiers as well as 25,000 civilians within 14 countries fail again and again to maintain peace in war-torn areas. Peace need not be like chasing eels in a bucket of Vaseline, if we use resources in our brain’s inventory to animate action.  

Wire our brains daily and we prepare mentally for peace. If we normalize a mindset for anger, anxiety or payback on the other hand, expect revengeful or flippant responses to follow.  Mindful reactions bring people together to find common ground, share assets, and foster harmony where we differ.  Remembrance Day is the perfect day to inventory our comebacks of personal assaults, or spot compassionate approaches that benefit all concerned. Beyond wearing a red poppy, it’s a time to grease our brain’s hardwired capabilities for leading peaceful solutions. How so?

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that well over 58 million people suffer from anxiety disorders. Why accept war’s knee-jerk reactions to strife when we can mentally stockpile harmonious reactions. Let’s pause to look at problematic exchanges and let’s risk peace possibilities wired into our brains from previous reactions. Consider hope’s options we’re more likely to side-step blame, anger, jealousy, rage or bullying, in order to unleash motivation to extend more peace than malice.

Who’d waltz into a bear cave in spring with a steak strapped to our foot? Yet we admit to a preference for peaceful possibilities while we refuel endless conflicts? Strife starts with a mental choice to enter bear caves in ways that erupt into physical battles.

Visuals matter here. Images of violence or caring change our brain’s plasticity (or its ability to change itself) to engage in more. Have you noticed that violent responses are far more popular than highly intelligent peace plans to heal our nation?  Recent research shows that repeated media violence diminishes the brain’s response for solutions. Both war and peace strategies are learned behaviors and both grow and persist with every repetition of care or conflict.  As a citizen of two countries, I see both Canada and the US emphasize battles in endless texts with warrior-like words that normalize chaos over calm.

It’s a matter of choice at first, but harmony depends on habits we enact as warriors or peacemakers. Hitler wired for war, Gandhi practiced peace.  Imagination and word choice change when we consider brain benefits that flow from peaceful responses to conflicts. Replace words such as war on terror with peaceful expressions that grow strong, caring, diverse communities, and our brains shift from expectations of violence to proposals to spawn a robust peace possibility.

Change may require radical risk at first for leaders to promote peace in exchange for the kind of violence that Irish people had grown accustomed to, and then resolved. Watch any contentious leader to see how peaceful interventions rarely follow rhetoric for battles though.  War often marches in like a silent killer if we insist peace is mere fantasy and myth, suggesting that without war bullies will benefit.

Some say peace offers a natural escape from our broken world. Brain gurus would add that it not only rewires brains, but can blast open communication paths where all benefit. Peacekeepers who model the art and science of disagreement tend to ask, “What if…?” and engage tools such as brainstorming, listening, admitting mistakes, trying out other people’s ideas, and evaluating alternative solutions that remove guns from the equation. To act vulnerably or compassionately is to awaken serotonin, the brain’s aha fuel to sustain common ground for all.

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Created by Ellen Weber, Brain Based Tasks for Growth Mindset

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