Hot air balloon
Photo: Chris Craymer
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! Hey, it's you—or is it? Are you chicken about bounding outward? Is daring inherited or can you learn it? O investigates the how, why, when, and wow of opening up your life.
Suppose for a minute that—and stop me if this sounds crazy—there's someone out there who isn't wildly excited about her life. I know, I know—this just doesn't seem possible, but bear with me. Put yourself in this person's shoes: Let's say you've been doing the same thing for some time now, running in place, your world getting smaller and smaller. In your darkest moments, you—not you, of course...you're a little ray of sunshine—feel trapped. You wonder why you don't have it in you to do something different with your life. You may ask yourself: Why aren't I more courageous? Why can't I make a big change? Why can't I just take a leap of faith?

According to experts in motivation and learning, developing a true sense of adventure—the kind that allows you to work your way out of life's little cul-de-sacs—doesn't mean you suddenly have to become enamored with bungee jumping. A sense of adventure is really about waking up every day not with a sense of dread but with a sense of possibility. "Most of us are extremely fearful about life," says Jim Loehr, PhD, a psychologist who cofounded LGE Performance Systems, a high-performance training center for athletes and executives in Orlando, Florida. "We're constantly trying to protect and defend ourselves. And yet there are people who've developed a different way of responding to the world. For them it's more a matter of saying 'What is the opportunity here?'"

These people seem as if they're just born with an enterprising spirit and annoyingly upbeat disposition—and some of them are. For four decades Marvin Zuckerman, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Delaware, has tracked a personality trait he describes as "sensation seeking" that signals, roughly translated, a sense of adventure. Zuckerman has studied identical and fraternal twins who grew up together, while others have looked at twins who were brought up apart, and these studies have found that sensation seeking is almost two-thirds inherited in any given population. "That's fairly strong heredity," Zuckerman says, since most personality traits, like neuroticism or extroversion, are 30 to 50 percent inherited.

There are gradations of sensation seeking—it's not a switch that's either on or off—and while some people are born daredevils and others totally phobic, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the adventuresome range. Environmental factors that play a part include your parents' discipline style (certain upbringings can quash a tendency to step out of the box) and your birth order. Psychologist Frank J. Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, says eldest children are usually more dependent on their parents' approval, which means they are likely to stick with what they know in order to guarantee that they get it. There are exceptions—Thomas More was a firstborn and, although motivated by conservatism, he stood up to Henry VIII—but latter-borns are more often the risktakers. "For a second- or third-born child, it's almost as if you've started playing Monopoly and someone already has Boardwalk and Park Place," says Sulloway. "If the best niches are occupied, you have to experiment with a niche that will impress your parents."

The next step toward a more adventurous life is getting unstuck: Here's how

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