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Field Report: The Science of Building Your Adventure Tolerance

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Tyler’s Note:  This is a Riskologist Field Report by Lisa Mazzocco from Chase Your Unicorm. Field Reports are written by readers just like you, so be nice, enjoy the story, and take action on the lesson. To contribute your own Field Report, go here.

Let me tell you something about myself: I have the power to see the future. 

Here’s another secret: So can you.

There’s just one problem with seeing the future.

I’m scared of it.

Let me explain.  One of the most fascinating parts of being human is that, unlike other animals, we have the capacity to dream. If I lived by simple physical logic, my reality would work like this:

  1. My eyes would see “X.”
  2. My brain would store “X.”
  3. Therefore, I could only think about and act out “X.”

But that’s not the case. Thanks to neurological phenomena someone far more qualified can explain, I can picture an existence that’s inverse and opposite of what I currently know.

And, provided my frontal lobe is intact (plug for bike helmets), I also have the capacity to plan—meaning I come fully equipped to change dreams into reality. No batteries required!

The limits of being X-Men (and X-Women)

In my case, though, I rather like reality as-is—my “X”, if you will.  Every morning, after I go for a run along Lake Michigan, I enjoy my organic Greek yogurt and The New Yorker before heading off to work with the talented, energetic, supportive people at my firm.  It’s quite lovely, really. And, most of the time, I’m perfectly content to keep disruptions to that loveliness at bay.

But, to scale up my impact on the world, as I aspire to do, I realize I can’t settle into this indefinitely.  If a big, cool, hairy adventure comes along that gives me the chance to step up to a new reality, will I be ready to take it?

Frankly, I’m not sure. Maybe, I thought, I should start preparing myself now. Yes… good idea.

I will build my “adventure tolerance.”

So, at the beginning of March, I spent a few days observing myself, on the lookout for “adventuresome” moves.  Here’s what I came out with:

  • I overcame my skepticism and bought chia seeds.
  • I tried a ballet class at my local yuppie conditioning center… er, gym.
  • I went out to a bar on…gasp…a Wednesday!

Conclusion: No eating live scorpions, no walking a tightrope made of unicorn hair.  My “normal” days, it seems, are fairly homogeneous. Where do I go from here?

The Physics of Making Waves in Life

For most of us, the answer is not to quit our jobs and travel the world every time we seek adventure. The majority of our time is spent operating within a consistent environment defined by our city, our work, and our resources.

This lends a steady-state undercurrent to life that can start to feel stagnant… but it doesn’t have to. In fact, this is precisely what goes into the beginnings of a major wave.

Waves form when water traveling at a steady pace toward land suddenly meets the slope of the shore—the slope effectively slows the water down, and allows water coming behind to overtake it. There you have it: a wave.

What we can learn from the physics of this natural wonder is that it’s perfectly fine, even beneficial, to start in a steady-state.

To make waves, we just have to build up our slope. 

The Adventure-Muscle Workout

I decided the best way to ramp up my risk tolerance was to slowly condition my adventure muscle. The workout I’ve adopted this month aims to do just that, and it’s utterly simple: seek out one small risk or adventure per day. To count, this adventure:

  • Must make me consciously uncomfortable
  • Must not endanger others
  • Cannot be a repeat of a previous adventure

The key questions I wanted to answer were, (1) what kinds of bite-size adventures was I taking, and (2) was I allowing them to grow a little taller, a little scarier over time?

I’m a data junkie, so to answer those questions, I kept a log: what was the day’s adventure, and how did it make me feel. I also wanted to avoid biasing my actions with early conclusions, so I didn’t let myself re-read any of the adventures along the way.

At the end of the month, though, I did review the log, and I realized my adventures fell into three distinct categories. I then broke down each week’s adventures into these categories to look for trends.

The results:

The three categories are defined by an escalating level of risk:

  • Tweak: Do something I normally do, but a little differently
    1. Ex. Walking home from work instead of taking the bus
    2. Risk level: Low.  The path is different, but the outcome is known.
  • Attempt: Do something totally new and random
    1. Ex. Buying a cupcake for a homeless man
    2. Risk level: Medium.  Outcome is unknown, but has just as much chance of being good as being bad.
  • Confront: Do something that I actively avoid under normal conditions
    1. Ex. Speaking out for a cause I believe in amidst a room full of people who believe the opposite
    2. Risk level: High.  The path is awkward, and the initial outcome will likely be loneliness and feelings of failure—precisely why I avoid these adventures; they present the steepest slope but, as physics tells us, that means they can also lead to the most magnificent wave.

The Empowering Conclusion for Adventure-Seekers

Observing the results, one trend sticks out pretty clearly: as I actively seek adventure, I become more willing to take on greater risk.

Now you might argue, “Duh! That’s the outcome you wanted, so this is just a self-fulfilling prophecy.” But don’t forget, I took steps to control for bias. I didn’t analyze any part of the data until it was all collected. (Plus, if you’re one with a large appetite for scientific rigor, you’re probably not truly an adventure-seeker.)

So if you’re with me on that, then the results of this pseudo-experiment suggest a powerful concept: you can actively increase your innate tolerance for adventure. 

It starts with awareness. Your “lizard brain”—the part that wants to keep you alive—will tell you to avoid risk. That’s handy when you’re deciding whether or not to wrestle a polar bear, but sometimes the lizard brain (LB) gets over-protective.

The key is to trick it by starting small. Pushing through a few Tweaks helps the LB shake the comforts of repetition. This makes it more optimistic about the chance to Attempt something unusual. When this leads to joy, the LB will realize it’s been a skeptic and that maybe those things it hasn’t been willing to Confront are more attainable than they once seemed.

“Adventure” manifests into something unique for each of us, but as members of AR,we unite around one theme: we want more of it. If you’re committed to that, tweak something today. Grab a notebook. Write it down. After a few weeks, look back—I think you’ll find that your adventure tolerance is increasing.

And when that big, cool, hairy one comes along, you’ll be ready for it.

Lisa Mazzocco writes at Chase Your Unicorn, where she chronicles her pursuit of athletic accomplishments in hopes that it will empower you to pursue your own “imaginary” goals.

Image by: thekellyscope 

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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. Pekka says:

    Nice and interesting report, thanks!

  2. Lisa Mazzocco says:

    Thanks Pekka! Confronting the people/places/situations I normally avoid has especially made for some healthy (and much-needed) self-reflection.
    In fact just read a great related article in Esquire: http://www.esquire.com/features/honesty0707

    Think we’d all be happier if more people operated this way?

  3. Amit Amin says:

    “if you’re one with a large appetite for scientific rigor, you’re probably not truly an adventure-seeker”

    To be honest, this is true of me, but I’m trying to change that! And I do appreciate your results, from a scientific perspective, because they show that simple behavioral modification techniques can slowly but surely expand our comfort zone.

    The last time I continuously expanded my comfort zone was probably the best time in my life, because I recall so much growth from the experience. This is a interesting idea to spur that on again. Thanks!

  4. Lynn Hess says:

    What an interesting way to mix data-gathering with adventure — two things I hadn’t necessarily thought of as going together!

    And I love this line about confrontation-type risks: “…they present the steepest slope but, as physics tells us, that means they can also lead to the most magnificent wave.” I have certainly found that to be true in my life, yet I still tend to avoid them at all costs. I am going to take your suggestion and seek out some small-scale “confrontations” to help me build my adventure muscle!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  5. TLC says:

    “(Plus, if you’re one with a large appetite for scientific rigor, you’re probably not truly an adventure-seeker.)”

    I have to disagree with this comment. After working six years at a academic medical center and doing scientific research myself, I have to state that research scientists are some of the greatest adventurers on the planet! They are willing to explore ideas and theories, and document every particle of their move so their work can be scientifically validated. Their work has produced so many medical treatments and so much hope for humankind. They also start out knowing that if their theory is disproven, their research is not for naught — it helps the next adventurer adjust THEIR theory for the next research project.

    Just because an adventure is subject to regulation doesn’t make it any less risky or compelling. When it comes to scientific research, the documentation is needed to protect both the scientists and the patients who volunteer for the studies. But both know that they’re willing to take the risk themselves to make life better for many.

    • Lisa Mazzocco says:

      TLC, you make a valid point. My comments were written in the context of personal exploration, where an individual or small group is the only direct stakeholder. In that frame my thinking is, if a person tries to name and quantify all the risks associated with an activity, it makes the outcome more predictable – which by definition diminishes the activity’s sense of “adventure”.

      But I hear what you’re saying – in the scientific world, the “adventurers” are there, but operate in a different context. The investment of time and money is much greater, and they have a wide array of picky stakeholders to please. Therefore, they MUST approach their risks with greater rigor, so that the adventure’s outcome gets “accepted” by their community and has the chance to reach its full potential.

      Thanks for the fresh perspective!

  6. [...] Field Report:  The Science of Building Your Adventure Tolerance It starts with awareness. Your “lizard brain”—the part that wants to keep you alive—will tell you to avoid risk. That’s handy when you’re deciding whether or not to wrestle a polar bear, but sometimes the lizard brain (LB) gets over-protective. [...]

  7. Asia says:

    Firstly, love the phrase “Adventure Tolerance.”
    Secondly, Opinon-from-someone-new (Hi!): Sometimes it helps to build up your “adventure tolerance” by doing not only the things that seem like they could be fun or interesting, but by also doing those things that you know you’re scared of (that probably means you should be doing them anyway, right?).
    Me personally, I used to hate sales. *Haaaate.* So what did I do? Took a job in sales. And man did those first few months suck. *Suuuuck.* In the end I learned so much from diving in over my head with a job that I knew could teach me some valuable lessons, especially because the skills required were on a completely different frequency level from my own skillset.
    Actually every time I’ve ever jumped into something over my head, my adventure tolerance has stretched far beyond what I thought it could.
    Hated flying… jumped on a plane to Africa.
    Hated uncertainty… jumped in a car with no plan, ended up in Mexico.
    Hated feeling poor… slept on beaches/couches/in cars/hung with those who are truly poor.
    Hated rejection… asked someone out.
    Actively facing fears is an effective way of stretching yourself.
    Of course just facing your fear once doesn’t mean you no longer have fear.
    But it shrinks that fear little by little the more you exercise your “just do it” muscle.

  8. Love your website’s name – Chase your Unicorns – such a pretty and unique name. I totally loved the article – I have been trying little by little to conquer my fears. Some of which are dying without making an impact on this planet, without figuring out what my purpose of being on this planet is. Still working on that one – might take a few lifetimes :)

    • Lisa Mazzocco says:

      Vagabonder – I love hearing that this resonated with you. When I drift into those big, Everest-like thoughts- particularly the question of, “what impact will I have on the world?” – I often find I’ve overwhelmed myself, which makes me unproductive.

      So lately I’ve tried to turn that big “make an impact” task into something more discrete, by looking for ways to “impact” everyday situations. What impact can I have on a crabby cab driver – can I make him smile by the end of the ride? What about the homeless woman I see everyday on my run – can I give her that pair of barely used running shoes, which might give her enough confidence to go interview for a job?

      I like thinking about the ripple effects of these seemingly small actions. Certainly my imagination won’t predict every outcome. But I believe when we do reach a transition point in life, and reflect on what got us there, we’ll see these actions weaving into a perfect story for each of us.

      As we seek, so shall we find!

Founded with love by Tyler Tervooren

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