John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C

One of the qualities of peak performers is their level of motivation to seek out risks and challenges. The majority of people spend a great deal of time attempting to avoid risks. Why do these exceptional individuals look for opportunities to challenge themselves when everyone else is running in the other direction?

There are several reasons for this from environmental influences to brain chemistry. One of the primary differences between high performers and the average person is a growth-mindset versus a fixed-mindset. This is where nurture plays a major role.

The Importance of a Growth-Mindset

Children and adolescents who were challenged to work at an objective until they achieved it came to the realization you could attain a skill or goal with sufficient effort. Those whose parents or coaches intervened too early, or helped too much, contributed to developing a belief in their child that talent is innate – you have it or you don’t.

Having a fixed-mindset is one of the major impediments to achieving your ultimate potential as an adult. However, research shows this can be shifted to a growth-mindset in a variety of ways. One study had a group of participants who met criteria for a fixed-mindset watch a series of motivational stories of individuals overcoming various obstacles and setbacks. At the end of the study, the majority of the subjects tested positive for a growth-mindset.

Harness Your Brain's Reward for Risk-Taking

An important aspect driving risk-taking is neurochemical. When you take risks and overcome a challenge, your brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine. This is highly motivating and causes you to search out additional experiences that can trigger this same neurochemical response.

The combination of dopamine and norepinephrine is also a performance enhancer. It markedly increases focus, pattern recognition, and expedites the time it takes to learn a skill and process new information.

How to Create New Positive Associations to Risk

There is an additional factor that begins to motivate one towards risks taking: After you have experienced a sufficient number of dopamine hits related to risks, the subcortical brain now associates risk with pleasure. When you are already pursuing something that is intrinsically rewarding, and you receive dopamine and norepinephrine for taking risks and challenging yourself, it becomes highly motivating to keep pursuing such activities.

Think of working out. Those who do not engage in physical activity regularly associate doing so with pain and discomfort. However, when exercising gives you a reward, such as increased performance, greater health, or a better physique, you then correlate doing so with positive reinforcement - pain equals pleasure.

Mastery As A Motivator 

One of our primary motivating forces as a human being is mastery. To achieve this goal requires consistently challenging yourself, i.e. taking risks. University of Cambridge neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian says, “If you’re interested in mastery, you have to learn this lesson: to really achieve anything, you have to be able to tolerate and enjoy risk. It has become a challenge to look forward to. In all fields, to make exceptional discoveries you need to risk – you’re just never going to have a breakthrough without it.”

Consistently pushing your edge not only creates a neurochemical reward, a growth-mindset, and positive associations with risk-taking, it also triggers neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to change itself. This is how you develop a level of talent and ability you did not possess prior.

Risk and Flow

In addition to everything mentioned thus far, risk is a primary flow trigger. To achieve your peak performance capability requires accessing a flow state. Flow follows focus, and nothing quite catches our attention like risk. However, risk does not need to be at the level of a life and death situation; it can be releasing a public post, speaking up at a meeting, or sharing something vulnerable relationally.

To create a new relationship with risk requires regularly taking small risks and having overall positive experiences. Take whatever your biggest goals are and break them down into small pieces you can conquer one at a time. In the long-game, consistent incremental steps wins the day.

Overcoming Blocks

You may agree with everything I have written so far and even have attempted to implement these strategies only to be frozen in fear, avoidance, and procrastination. Don’t be discouraged. Taking these steps is a struggle for all of us. After working with thousands of clients, I can tell you everyone battles with fear, shame, and various traumas. You just need help overcoming these blocks to become a peak performer. Find the right therapist, coach, or mentor to assist you in doing so in order to finally be able to accomplish these objectives.

Current research is equivocal: talent is created, not born. You are capable of becoming an elite level individual in your field. You can begin taking the necessary steps to become an individual who seeks out risks and challenges. It is all about getting your biology to work for you, rather than against you.

Start today. Eliminate the blocks that stand in your way, work towards developing a growth-mindset, and break risk down into the smallest steps required to succeed. This will then allow you to start getting the dopamine and norepinephrine hits that will begin to fuel you towards becoming a peak performer.


John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.

John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance. 

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