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'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

When scientists talk about a sense of adventure, they're usually referring to a physiological response: People who grab at life's possibilities respond—on a biological level—to stressful situations quite differently from the rest of us. Loehr says that when the mind perceives any variety of danger—anything from a physical threat to a grueling day with the in-laws—the adrenal cortex (the outer layer of the adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys) starts producing the hormone cortisol. Known as the stress hormone, cortisol breaks down muscle proteins into amino acids, which the liver converts into glucose for energy to help us prepare for whatever the threat is. But there are some negative effects: Your heart rate shoots up, along with your respiratory rate and blood pressure. Your body is literally getting ready for war. Humans honed this response in the Stone Age, when almost everything was a life-or-death decision, and many of us still use it as a default, even if our life isn't really on the line. We wake up each day thinking about all the things that could go wrong, producing cortisol at the tiniest mishaps. Over time this reaction becomes an overreaction, Loehr says. It exhausts us and warps our judgment. It literally stresses us out.

The more optimistic adventurers among us, however, instinctively stimulate the inner adrenal core—the adrenal medulla—which produces a hormonal release of catecholamines, including epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Catecholamines are part of the same fight-or-flight response that got us through the Stone Age, but their effects, Loehr says, "are more related to a sense of challenge, opportunity, and adventure without all the toxic feelings that come from fear." Catecholamines help you feel high-spirited, sometimes even euphoric. And since epinephrine and norepinephrine are linked to increased mental activity, you're able to make decisions more clearly.

At his Florida center, Loehr teaches his clients behavioral strategies to shift from automatically triggering the outer adrenal hormones to the healthier ones of the adrenal medulla. This involves learning a whole new set of habits. His clients learn to start the morning with a few moments of contemplation, planning the day ahead and reflecting on what's important to them. Some give this time over to prayer; others, to meditation or relaxation.

During the day, Loehr's clients repeat to themselves mottos they've composed—like "I am self-reliant," "I am decisive," "I'm a good problem solver"—to counteract the running self-critique the rest of us tend to deliver all day ("I am way too needy," "I can't make a decision to save my life," "Why can't I solve my problems?!"). If daily affirmations aren't your speed, you might try playing your favorite kind of music at the same time every day. "We try to figure out what has given you the sense of the world as a place with infinite possibilities," says Loehr. "Then suddenly you start to frame each day as an opportunity to grow, not as Oh my God, I'm gonna die."

The next step toward a more adventurous life is getting unstuck, says Maggie Craddock, a former award-winning Wall Street money manager who now uses her degree in counseling psychology to coach employees of Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Credit Suisse First Boston. Craddock says that people who are feeling as if life is closing in on them have one thing in common: They're having trouble separating what they think they should want (a promotion, a big fat raise, the return of casual Fridays) from what they really want (recognition, a sense of purpose or balance in their lives). Clients often walk through the door thinking they're going to be focusing on how to get rid of the guy in the corner office, but they quickly find themselves entering a deeper discussion of what's really holding them back.

Craddock starts by talking with them about their home lives, their childhoods, their support systems. She'll ask, "What definitions of success did you get from your family?" and "How do they influence the decisions you're making today?" In answering the questions, clients sometimes see that when they're under pressure, they repeat behavior patterns from their childhood—patterns that trip them up now. They begin to realize that they might have made choices based on someone else's idea of success or happiness, which could be rethought. "People have to ask themselves, How is my sense of who I am being shaped by the people I'm around?" says Craddock. "Is that keeping me in my rut or helping me out of it?"

The way to discover your inner adventurer is not with foolhardy, death-defying acts but with balance and contemplation

If the feedback you're getting isn't encouraging and you can't get rid of the disparagers, then Craddock suggests a technique called standing sideways. It means managing your reactions so you don't consider every challenge to be a direct blow to your self-esteem. Then you can begin to let a lot of stuff go by. (Think about it: Turn sideways and you're offering a narrower target for hits.)

All this is good—tapping into catecholamines, zapping discouraging friends—but the other part of becoming more adventurous means eventually taking a risk. There's a program specifically designed to help people brave that next step: In 1941 a German educator named Kurt Hahn cofounded the first Outward Bound, a school that inserts people into some hairy situations and helps them prove to themselves how much they can accomplish.

Now, once again, bear with me: If you happen to equate mountain climbing not with adventure but with, say, stupidity, let me assure you that Hahn wasn't just interested in cheap thrills. "Thrill seeking is throwing yourself into a situation without really reflecting on it," says Thomas James, vice-dean and professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, who has spent much of his career studying Hahn. "Hahn was about looking at our self-imposed limitations and stretching beyond them. The adventurous part is discovering possibilities in ourselves."

How do you do that? Not with foolhardy, death-defying acts but with balance and contemplation. For every daring climb or hike you tackle in Outward Bound, you also do something (sometimes many things, like double-checking knots, learning to read a compass...) to ensure that you survive. James calls it a dialectic of risk taking and safety. On a typical 21-day trip, the first week is devoted to the basics: If you're rock climbing, you're taught how to balance yourself, adjust your feet, gauge the friction beneath your boots. The process is never about danger or competition. By week two you find yourself climbing—not under any life-threatening conditions, maybe just six feet above the ground. The third week you're going up the mountain. Using the skills you've just picked up, you discover firsthand just how much more capable you've become. "While you still may be a little scared, you've been taught how to manage the risk," says James. "That's how you get the confidence to become more adventurous and try new things. You're moving into areas of experience you've never had before. So you're building up your sense of self-reliance."

Being adventurous, it turns out, is a little like being a good dancer: Most of us think we aren't, and the more we're convinced of this, the less hope we have of loosening up and getting better. But if we would open up a little—look at what we might do instead of what we're certain we can't—we'd discover something: "Hahn wrote that every human being has within himself a grand passion," says James. And that passion—that's where a sense of adventure really takes you.

Next: How to create an entire mindset for change

From the July 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.


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