Mother barnacle gosling teaching her chicks to fly.

Image from Unsplash.com


On the 30th September 2019, twenty- five- year- old , Halima Nakaayi, of Uganda , won the Women’s 800 metres  finals at the Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar. It was the 17th IAAF Athletics World Championships. Nakaayi, the simple girl from a small town, Mukono, had overtaken Ajee Wilson of USA, the obvious favourite to win the title. Nakaayi was considered as an outsider; having never run in a world Championship or Olympic final.

I stood up and cheered wildly as she crossed the line. I was intrigued by this young woman who had won us the first medal at the IAAF Athletics World Championships.  I ended up reading her life’s journey to that magical moment. She first competed in the World Youth championships in 2011 later she competed in the Commonwealth Youth games as a middle-distance runner. She has kept on training hard and competing to perfect her race. Just like everyone else, she has had some good and bad days.

 Her unique story got me thinking about the risks and sacrifices that we have to make to continue moving forward and to get what we want in life. This is why I am now writing about Taking Risks.

Wikipedia.org defines risk as the potential for uncontrolled loss of something of value.

Values like physical health, social status, emotional well- being or financial wealth can be gained or lost when taking risk resulting from a given action or inaction, foreseen or unforeseen.

Every day we take risks as we go about things with the intention of achieving our goals and dreams. We take risks to move forward and get where we want to be.

Mark Zuckerberg, the co- founder and Chief Executive Officer of Facebook once said: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that changes really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

And the Writer, Christy Raedeke also emphasised the significance of taking risks in our lives when she said: “ If there is no risk, there is no reward.”

Risk is part of life and yet most of us fear to take risks out of fear to fail and this hinders us from pursuing and living our dreams. Every decision each individual makes every day including the decision to do nothing, carries some element of risk. The best thing is to focus on the opportunity other than exaggerate the riskiness of the decision

The psychologists advise us to take small risks before taking a big one. Taking small, measured risk-taking behavior increases our confidence and self- efficacy. As our confidence builds up, we become less afraid of failure or risks.

Sometimes, I have had to admit that the fear was not as risky as it seemed. After all, great success is built on many failures; the lessons learned from the failure inform your next decision about the issue at hand.

Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric bulb failed 999 times before getting it right. Being an optimistic person, when a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?’’ Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

As taking risks is normal animal behavior ,the psychologists have studied it and come out with the benefits of taking  risks:

  1. Taking a risk causes the release of the hormone Adrenaline from the adrenal glands at the top of each kidney and some neurons , into the blood. Adrenaline prepares the body to react quickly to the threat or danger: the heart  beats faster, the blood flow to the brain and muscles is increased and the cells are stimulated to make more sugar available for use for fuel. The sudden release of Adrenaline makes you feel high and it is what is known as the ‘Adrenaline high’. At that moment in time you can either fight or run away from the danger.
  2. Taking a risk also releases Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that transmits signals in between the nerve cells of the brain. Dopamine is the ‘feel good ‘ factor which makes us happy and motivated as we go through life.  It controls emotions and cognition.

The sudden release of these two chemicals that cause a  natural high also helps to ward off depression. Studies have proven that risk taking in small doses is almost universally beneficial for our brains and mental health.  However, the natural high can become addictive to some people.

The psychologists keep reminding us:

  • that each risk taken has potential consequences and that some risks are not worth taking.
  • An individual’s willingness to take risks varies across age and situations
  • Individuals have risk preferences- a mountain climber may find it difficult to take a financial risk- to invest his money into the stock market other than keep it in a simple saving account. Risk preference is a form of characteristic traits.

The willingness to take risks starts early in childhood- boys tend to engage in greater risk taking than the girls. Children take risks by trying to do scary things. They do so to get a thrill out of it and but in the process, they gain confidence, learn and grow.

Studies done by the psychologists show that there are 6 categories of risks that attract children everywhere as they play:

1. Great heights- climbing trees, walls so as to see things from a vantage point. It gives them the thrill to say, “I did it.’’

2. Super speeds.  Racing down a hill in a toy car just for the thrill of it.

3. Dangerous tools- playing with knives, farm machinery. They get the thrill of being in control.

4. Dangerous elements- playing with fire or water. It pauses some danger but feels good doing it.

5. Rough and Tumble- chasing each other or wrestling. They know it could hurt but at the end the child will have acquired the skill.

6. Wandering off- getting lost, playing hide and seek in new territories that could even be dangerous, to enjoy that thrill.

Many young mammals also enjoy risky play: puppies try to wander off from the mother to explore, young monkeys swing from branches of trees. They chase one another around and play fighting. They are aware that it could cause injury but they do it to get the thrill of doing it. It is self-chosen, thrilling play.

I grew up in a big family where the girls were even more than the boys. Our parents were strict disciplinarians who spelled out the limits to us but on many occasions we willingly stretched the limits by climbing very tall trees, riding on the neighbour’s motorcycle and swimming into pools of muddy water. Most times we got away with it but on the few times we were caught, we were punished appropriately.

All in all, we found out that the benefits outweighed the risks; we grew up to be confident and emotionally strong. Now at my age I know for sure that I have to continue taking risks in life and to encourage the young ones to do so.  If I win, I can lead and if I lose I can still guide others.

Studies in laboratory animals like rats have clearly shown  that overprotection of the young ones turns them into emotionally crippled adults; not knowing what to do in unfamiliar or new environments.

The same thing applies to overprotected children who are denied free risky play by parents who believe that they are protecting them. They tend to grow up into children with mental disorders. The psychologists therefore advise parents to set limits according to age but then allow children to play freely and play risky without adult control. The children will gain trust and responsibility, become more confident and emotionally strong. Children know how far they can go and what risks they are not ready for so it is the parents themselves who have to learn to be trusting and tolerant.

The Adolescence( 10-24) years.

 Many of us have been there and done that during this period of rapid changes and transformation. The Adolescent period is the period when boys and girls engage in risky activities like: reckless driving , alcohol and drug abuse, and risky sexual behaviour  at the most. The female and male hormones flowing in their bodies, cause physical, emotional , intellectual and social changes. The brain begins to mature: organize and regulate impulses. The brain development is completed by the age of 25 years. It is influenced by hereditary, environment and the sex hormones.

 Since the invention of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging(MRI), a medical diagnostic technique in 1977, it has been used to study how the brain develops to maturity. With the MRI ,a  picture of any part of the body can be made if the body is exposed to an electromagnetic field.

MRI studies of the brain demonstrate the developmental changes between 10-24 years of age, in the white and grey brain matter. The Prefrontal Cortex which controls our emotions and motivation and directs and controls behavior in order to meet the challenges of the environment is the last area of the brain to mature. Before it matures, adolescents cannot direct and control their behavior to meet the challenges of their environment or weigh risks and rewards- they have no sense of self –regulation. This explains why the teenagers focus more on the rewards of peers than from adults; turning to their peers for help mainly for social inclusion. This increases their chances of engaging in risky behavior. Adolescents take more risks than any other age group to explore themselves and their environment.

The role of the parents and teachers is to engage with the teenagers and offer them the correct information about the changes and transformations going on in their lives. They have to engage teenagers in all areas of their lives, listening, offering suggestions and guidance. The adolescents should be allowed to make mistakes and to learn from their own experiences. Setting limits for peer interaction and supervising them can limit opportunities for risky behavior.

After the age of 25, the willingness to engage in risky activities declines after gaining the ability to self-regulate. As we continue to grow, we acquire more skills for assessing risk through our own experiences and those around us. We learn that risk taking is good for everyone and we work towards minimizing the risk of losing. We consider the profits and losses but still focus on winning. Over time we all learn to live with acceptable risks. We learn the process of making good risk decisions by :

  • Thinking for yourself- use your common sense to reach a conclusion and move forward.
  • Take one risk at a time- it builds your confidence for bigger risks. You will become bolder and braver every day.
  • Do not put everything on the line- time and money in one venture.
  • You create your own safety standards, setting limits and timelines. It is your life to live and live fully.

For those of us who read the Bible, the parable of the three servants who were entrusted with money has a lot to teach us in our time. The one who received five thousand coins doubled it and was promoted to handle larger amounts while the one who received one thousand coins buried them  in the ground had them taken away and given to the one who had doubled his.

A life without taking risks is stagnant and boring. I would rather get bruised other than find myself at my deathbed saying, “ If Only I  had…………………..

Or asking myself, “ How would my life have turned out if I had……….

Jim Rohn once said: “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.”

No doubt , our young woman from Mukono , Uganda, must have taken numerous risks to end up winning us the first gold at the IAAF Athletics World Championships. I take off my hat to you!


Have you undertaken a big risk in your life recently? Did the worst that you feared happen? Did the outcome change your life for the better?