7 Tips for Encouraging Girls to Take Risks
Part 4: How modeling and messaging can help girls battle fear of taking risks
Posted Feb 10, 2019
I was invited to the Lisa Valentine Clark Show to do an interview as a follow-up to my post on tips for saying yes to more of the right opportunities. Lisa had so many great follow-up questions that we couldn’t possibly cover them all 20 minutes. So, I decided to create 3 follow-up posts to answer some of those additional questions. This is the fourth and last post of the series.
One of the ways to increase the number of women leaders in the world is to start early - by encouraging girls to take chances. Leadership opportunities come about partly from early foundational skills of being open to new experiences and learning how to manage our fears of taking such a risk.
When I was a little girl, I came across a book called “Be A Perfect Person in Just Three Days” by Stephen Mays. I can’t recall the specific details, but I recall the intentionally ironic advice toward the end of the book that to be perfect, you must do things like sit in a corner and not do anything, except maybe drink bland tea.
The message, in essence, is that the only way to be “perfect” is to not live your life at all because one wrong move can lead to a mistake!
I could totally relate at that time. I was often fearful of making the wrong move and embarrassing myself. The fear was related to other people judging me negatively: an unhelpful external outcome that, in reality, I had little control over.
In fact, this is a common concern among girls and women as part of our socialization process. Girls and women are socialized to achieve in school and at work while also looking perfect, being the perfect parent, and juggling a million other perfectionism-based (unrealistic) expectations. Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code, says we teach girls to avoid failure and risk and teach boys to be brave and take risks.
This is not only a problem in terms of the implications for women at work, but also a national educational, economic and health problem. Educationally and economically, with girls generally attaining higher and more levels of education than men yet holding themselves back from taking risks at work, we’re limiting the potential in our workforce and not tapping all the available talent. Health-wise, mental, emotional, and physical health problems can develop from unrealistic personal expectations, fear of failure, and constant negative self-judgment. This includes depression, anxiety, burnout, and many other problems. Girls sometimes avoid taking risks for fear of being shamed, shunned, ridiculed. While avoiding this experience may address short-term fears, it can contribute to more long-term problems.
For those of you who raise, teach, or work with girls, here are seven ways you can help them learn to take calculated risks to gain this critical leadership experience early in life and help them become more emotionally and physically resilient.
1. Reward taking the chance, not the result of the outcome.
Focus on rewarding the girl for taking a risk. This doesn’t have to be related specifically to an academic or performance pursuit.
For example: “You were nervous, but I’m so incredibly proud of you for going for it! How did it feel to try?”
2. Try small tests of positive change.
Exposure therapy is a well-known evidence-based intervention for treating specific fears. If you have a sense that she will enjoy a new experience AND it’s low-risk, just throw her in to try it! If it’s higher risk or requires more skill, start with smaller, less intense practice of skills, that get a little more challenging and closer to the goal each time there is some success.
For example: If the goal is to get her comfortable with being on stage, sequential approximations could include first talking through any fears she might have, then describing to her what she might expect to happen (first, next, last) to help her visualize being in that situation, then having her practice in front of you at home pretending to be on stage, then practicing in front of a few more safe family members, then practicing in front of friends, etc.
3. Be mindful of your mindset.
Mindset is another powerful psychological tool. Her mindset is important, but here I’m actually also talking about your own.
Maintain a mindset that she will be okay. Avoid trying to overprotect her due to your own fears of her potential “failure” (I put failure in quotes because that label is also part of a mindset). Help her be wise about which risks she takes, but not scared to take any risk at all.
For example: Try to catch and limit how often you say (out loud) to her things like “but what if…” or “be careful”. Instead, try to coach yourself and her to use more words like “nice try!” “you never know, unless you try,” or “it’s okay, next time we can try it a different way.” For those of you who might be hard on yourselves, this change in language and catching yourself takes a lot of mindfulness and practice, so be kind to yourself as you practice these new skills as well.
4. Be a role model.
Don’t forget to take your own risks – for yourself and for her future success!
When I was growing up, my mom may have been timid about a lot of things, but she was not timid when it came to the risks she took for career opportunities. In her earlier years as an architect rebuilding historical buildings in Romania, she would agree to fly to various cities and live in some really interesting places she was rebuilding (once she even stayed in a monastery and lived like the resident nuns!). Later when she worked as an architect in New York City, she would be the only one who would agree to risky assignments like surveying the rooftops of tall public buildings to identify the source of leaks that had to be fixed. As a result, she had a long and rewarding career with many more opportunities than colleagues who would not take those calculated risks. Some might say these risks were pretty crazy – I say they were bold! And they were calculated, not random risks. Most importantly, she set a bar for me that it was normal to take career risks.
5. Expose her to a variety of relatable role models (e.g., similar in background, gender, ethnicity, similar challenges, or other ways).
Kids often want to try new things after seeing other kids doing it. If she doesn’t see people like her doing that activity, it’s much harder to imagine being able to do it herself.
This is especially the case for women of color in leadership. The more young girls can see people like them succeeding, the more they are likely to imagine it as a possibility for themselves and try.
Jennifer Dubow, a business consultant in the Durham, North Carolina area, also suggests that if a girl has non-traditional interests, to make sure those role models are available to her. She says, “Unconventional role models can normalize their journey if it’s off the beaten path.” This can also significantly increase her self-confidence.
6. Verbalize and normalize the risk-taking experience and process.
Making comments about how “mistakes are part of learning” and that “failure is an opportunity to learn and get feedback about what to do better next time to improve” is a good start. But make sure to also go beyond these “teachable moment” clichés.
Describe what it’s like for YOU to actually experience taking risks. Normalize the process and internal experience of fear. Verbalize how you try to move away from the language of shame. Show how you might use the language of perseverance.
For example: “Today I gave this new presentation that I’ve never given before, and I didn’t do as well as I wanted. I stumbled on my words, forgot some of what I wanted to say, didn’t know how to answer a question. At first, I was so embarrassed and so hard on myself. I was telling myself things like ‘How could you do so badly?’ and ‘You’re no good at this.’ But, then I reminded myself, ‘I never did this before. I’m proud I tried. I can always make it better. I just need some more practice.’ And then, you know what? Later that day, someone from the presentation emailed me and told me my presentation helped them! So that part went well and it made me feel so good that I did it.”
7. Be careful with negative comments about performance.
Catch yourself from saying negative things about other people’s performance in front of your children. Catch yourself from saying too many heavily negative things about yourself in front of your children. And catch and stop her when she does the same.
In many households, this comes up when watching competition shows, like America’s Got Talent. If you find that the family relishes picking apart every small mistake in the performance a little too much, try changing the focus to also making positive comments like “Wow, look at how much courage it took for her to get on that stage – good for her for taking that chance! That’s a real accomplishment to get to that point!” or “I wonder how many years it took for her to get that good. I bet she practiced for many years.”
This is consistent with Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly book on the toxic impact of the language of shame. We must be careful not to shame ourselves, our daughters, or others for trying something new and not being immediately perfect at it.
Jennifer Dubow notes that "we live in a culture and society that focuses on results and accomplishments, and devalues the process and the journey. However, the true learnings happen not when everything goes well, but rather when we taking risks, making mistakes, and learn from them." The process of trying is a legitimate accomplishment in and of itself because the final outcome is actually a moving target. If you make continuous improvements toward the goal, the outcome will change over time as each achievement is surpassed and replaced by new goals.
Bonus Tip: As an aside, when I asked my daughter if she had any additional advice to give, she said, “Tell them ‘If you try it first, then you will know afterwards if you like it or not.’”
P.S.: I always love hearing from my readers. Got any more “Rules to Live By” related to this subject? Please share! Got a great example of your own experience applying these ideas? I’d love to hear them!
A special thank you to Jennifer Dubow of Jennifer Dubow Consulting for her thoughtful review and edits to this post.