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How to Take Risks (When You’re a Scaredy Cat)

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I would hardly consider myself a risk-taker. I have a huge fear of heights, I’m not a fan of change, and I don’t ever want to go skydiving.

And yet, at the age of 20, I co-founded Women LEAD, the first and only leadership development organization for young women, led by young women, in Nepal.

In the summer of 2010, I embarked on what was then the most out-of-my-comfort zone trip of my life. I was a junior in college heading to Kathmandu, Nepal to start a two-week leadership development course for girls with my co-founder and close friend, Claire. I was in a country where I did not speak the language, could not find my way around, and doing something I had never done before. I was overwhelmed by the noise, activity, and rush that characterizes the dusty, busting streets of Kathmandu.

Little did I know at the time that not only would I come back to Nepal, but Claire and I would launch Women LEAD as an organization and become co-executive directors. Women LEAD would become my first job out of college, and occupy most of my waking and sleeping hours.

Not all of you may want to go and start a non-profit at the other end of the world, but how can you start taking risks in your life today?

1. Have a partner in crime

Without my co-founder motivating me and sometimes leading the way, I would not have been able to start and stick to Women LEAD. Having a partner who complements your skills and knowledge is critical to reassuring yourself that you both have all the necessary skills needed to take the risky leap into a new venture.

We all have that one friend who is a bit of a daredevil and risk-taker. If you really want to start taking more risks in your life, join your friend in his or her adventures. Agree to go on that rafting trip or go to an event that you would never normally go to. Taking a risk seems much less intimidating when you’re doing it with someone you trust.

2. Don’t give yourself the time to think

Your first reaction to taking a risk or entering a new situation will be fear, so try to ignore it and quickly respond. I find that when I give myself the time to think before doing something risky, I’m less likely to do it.

I’m not saying not to assess a situation before jumping in, but know when it’s the right time to stop thinking and start doing. This can apply to small and big risks. For example, I sometimes write articles that feel too personal and vulnerable. Before I can even think about changing my mind, I shoot an email to Levo League’s Editor saying, “Yes, I’ll write this!” Committing myself to writing the article right away forces me to take the risk.

3. Listen to your gut

There were clear, rational arguments for taking the plunge and working on Women LEAD full-time: the need for our organization, the girls we wanted to keep on working with, my co-founder, and the amazing support of my family and friends. Ultimately though, it was my gut that ended up convincing me to take a risk and follow my passion.

I woke up one night at 3 a.m., absolutely sure that doing Women LEAD was what I needed to do. I couldn’t sleep until 7 a.m., thoughts and excitement swirling in my mind. My gut was telling me that taking on Women LEAD was the next inevitable step in my life. And so, that day, I told my co-founder I was in.

4. See your inexperience as an advantage and accept that you will make mistakes

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, said it best during a recent commencement speech:

“The final myth about changing the world is one I often hear from new graduates—that it’s better to wait until you have more experience. It may seem from where you sit that the impact you can have at this point in your lives is negligible, but I’m a big believer in the power of inexperience. It was the greatest asset I had when I started Teach For America. If I had known at the outset how hard it was going to be, I might never have started.

The world needs you before you stop asking naïve questions, before you stop pursuing solutions more seasoned experts have given up on—and while you have the time to understand the true nature of the complex problems we face and take them on.”

The reason I started Women LEAD now rather than later is that I believe this was one of the best moments in my life to do it. I do not have heavy family responsibilities, but most importantly I don’t have the cynicism I will have in 10 years that might have prevented me from starting.

When I threw myself into Women LEAD, I had no idea how much I would have to learn, how frustrating and hard it would sometimes be, and what opposition I would face along the way.

I look back on the first year that we started Women LEAD and I cringe at the things I now know that I did wrong. It’s uncomfortable to have to admit when I simply don’t know the answer, but when I own up to it, people have always been willing to stop and help me.

Don’t let your inexperience stop you from taking a risk. If I had waited until I was an expert on young women’s leadership, I never would have started.

What have you been waiting to start? What risks will you start taking? Let us know in the comments below!

Ask Levo Mentor Bonnie McDaniel, founder of Women are Talking Initiative, how she took risks throughout her career and managing emotions before and after those choices!

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