Category Archives: Take Risks

Science has proven our expectations and beliefs shapes our potential. Here’s why and how you can expend your limits and the people around you.

(Plagiarism caveat: I cribbed this story from a fascinating broadcast of NPR’s This American Life.  I provide a link to the full show below.)

Bob Rosenthal, a research psychologist, conducted a study on how expectations change potential through a study using average lab rats.  Even though the lab rats IQs were all equal, he hung signs on all of the rat cages with some of the signs saying the rat in the cage was incredibly smart, and some of the signs said that the rat in the cage was incredibly dumb, even though neither of those things was true.

He next brought in a group of experimenters and told them for the next week, some of them were going to work with incredibly smart rats and some of them were going to work incredibly stupid rats. And their job was to run their rat through a maze and record how well it does.

The results were dramatic.

The “smart” rats did almost twice as well as the “dumb” rats.  Rosenthal’s study proved that the expectations that the experimenters carried in their heads subtly changed the way that the experimenters touched the rats and that changed the way that the rats behaved. So when the experimenters thought that the rats were really smart, they felt more warmly towards the rats and so they touched them more gently.

“We do know that handling rats and handling them more gently can actually increase the performance of rats,” said Rosenthal.

And how does this play out when it comes to our expectations of people? What occurred with the rats holds true for people too, says Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford.  You may be standing farther away from someone you have lower expectations for, you may not be making as much eye contact. And it’s not something you can put your finger on. We’re not usually aware of how we are conveying our expectations to other people, but it’s there.”

And it happens in all kinds of areas of massive importance.  Research has shown:

That teachers’ expectations can raise or lower students’ IQ scores;

 That mothers’ expectations influences the drinking behavior of middle schoolers;

 That military trainers’ expectations can literally make a soldier run faster or slower.

So what does science know about where we should draw the line? Does it have a clear sense of that? No,” said Dwek. “That line is moving. As we come to understand things that are possible and mechanisms through which a belief affects an outcome or one person affects another person, that line can move.”

The story goes on to highlight Daniel Norris, a man blind since birth, whose mother refused to place the restrictions on him that society usually places on blind people.  She let him climb trees, play on his own, scale jungle gyms.

And yes, even ride a bike.

Yep, a blind kid riding a bike.  And yes, he had accidents, but none worse than any other kid learning to ride a bike or climb a tree.  Through “echolocation,” a process which involves him clicking his tongue in a way that resembles the radar ability in a bat, he was able to learn to identify objects in the environment around him to the point where he saw images in his head of these objects.  A blind man that essentially learned to see.  How is this possible?

“There is a lot of pressure to keep a child safe, and especially in a litigious society,” said Norris.  And the paraeducators [who are assigned to help the blind] can end up doing the work for the kids. [But] when you lighten someone’s load, you don’t allow him or her to expand. [Blind children] are so often discouraged . . . and become slaves to others’ perception. Slaves to what others think they should be doing. And somehow we’re [as a society] comfortable with that.”

This story is fascinating in many ways, but for now I ask you to consider:

How are your perceptions limiting yourself and those around you?  What beliefs about yourself, your spouse, your children or your employees are you holding onto that are limiting their growth and their potential?  How much expansion are you trading for safety? What subtle messages are you conveying that sets the bar too low?

Our beliefs may shape us, but we can shape those beliefs.  Let’s expand them and all grow together.


I highly encourage you to listen to the full show from This American Life.  You can find it here:

My book, The Abundant Bohemian: How To Live an Unconventional Life Without Starving In the Process is out now.  You can find it at


Lessons from the World Cup (that have nothing to do with soccer)

Two friends and I spent the first two weeks of the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.  As soccer fanatics, we had a wonderful experience.  We saw four games live and got to watch team USA survive the “group of death” with another 20,000 Americans on Copacabana Beach.  But soccer aside, my Brazilian travel taught me some new lessons and reminded me of important things I already knew.

The Media is Always Wrong. 

Before I left, all I heard about the World Cup on the news was how people were rioting in the streets, the stadiums were going to fall down, the transportation was poor, and Brazil was generally dangerous.  I experienced none of this.  The people were friendly and gracious. I saw no riots, although I did see one peaceful protest consisting of about twenty people waving anti-government signs.  The cabs, trains and buses were safe and punctual.  After Chile defeated reigning World Cup champion Spain 2-0, seventy-two Chilean fans tried to break into their team’s locker room.  They didn’t intend violence; they were so excited they just wanted to love on their team.  They were exported.  There were 75,000 people in the stadium that day.  That’s less than a 1% problem.  I give that an A+.

Every Time You Step Outside your Comfort Zone, You are Changed for the Better. 

One of the best things about the World Cup is that it attracts so many different people from all over the World.  I hung out with people from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and all over South America.  Many people were on month-long or longer trips across South America, and I was reminded of how Americans work too much and take too little time off compared to the rest of the World.  I was reminded that you can have very little material possessions and be very happy. You can have little money and still see the World.  I met a rural farmer from Ecuador who was there with his grandson to support his country in the Cup. He had been saving up for close to twenty years for the trip.  I was reminded that people are essentially good, generous, and want the best for you.  The people in Brazil proved this in spades.

It’s Energizing to Engage With Your Tribe.

I’ve written about finding your tribe before, but I didn’t have to look hard to find my tribe at the World Cup because I was surrounded by them.  It was easy to start a conversation with anyone because you shared the same passion and they wanted to talk about it as much as I did.  The only casualty of the trip was that I lost my sunglasses after an exuberant USA fan picked me up and swung me around after the US scored against Portugal.  It was a small price to pay.  I’m lucky that my tribe is big because of the popularity of the sport, but I’m sure people who go to NASCAR races or Comi-Con or join boating clubs feel the same way.

A few days after I returned I stopped at gas station.  While waiting in line to pay, the man working behind the counter noticed I was wearing a France national team jersey that I bought in Brazil. He asked me about it and I told him the story of my trip.  It turned out he was a French citizen of African descent, and he was so surprised and pleased that someone in Dayton, Ohio would be supporting his home team he came around the counter and gave me a big hug, to the bewilderment of the people waiting in line behind me.  That’s my tribe.  This little exchange—this connection—made my day.  This reminded me of the importance of seeking out the things, even if it is only one thing, that links and binds us to those out there living similar or very different lives than mine. Take the time to engage your fellow tribesmen.  It’s good for the soul—both yours and theirs.

Cheering for Failure

In the 1960’s during the boom of the space exploration, NASA wanted to encourage their engineers to take more risks in order to push the program forward.  How did they do this? When an unmanned rocket exploded at take off, mission control would applaud.  They applauded to announce: it didn’t work, but you tried.  And trying deserves praise.  And that praise kept the engineers from being consumed by the fear of failure or lack of success.  And the space program leaped ahead of the rest of the world in its advancements.

 Stephen King spent years writing and being rejected before finding success.  Each time he submitted work and was rejected, he tacked the rejection letter on a nail he had placed on his wall for that purpose.  When he had more rejection letters than could fit on the nail, he replaced the nail with a railroad spike.  And he kept writing.  Nailing the rejection letters above his writing desk instead of throwing them away was a way of cheering his failure.  It acknowledged that he had tried and that the effort was worthy in itself.

 When we take risks, whether in our art, business, or personal life, we risk failure.  And we will fail more than we succeed.  And those failures will lead to success—failing is the only path to success.

 So get out there and fail.  And fail again.  And each time your rocket explodes, pat yourself on the back and give yourself a standing ovation.  You’ve earned it.