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“If you wanna run with the big dogs, you’ve gotta get off the porch.” This was the sage advice given to me some years ago as I considered my first entrepreneurial venture. You’ve got to take risks. Be gutsy. All of which led me to wonder what guts really is. And, more importantly, if you don’t have it, can you get it?

What is “gutsyness?”

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Guts (in our context) is…

  1. Courage; fortitude.
  2. Nerve; audacity.

To me, “guts” translates to a willingness and ability to embrace risk. What kind of risk?

  • Risk of trying and failing
  • Risk of exposing your true-self and being judged
  • Risk of losing status, time and money
  • Risk of injury or death, and
  • Risk of…succeeding at whatever it is you are attempting

Looking at the above list, it’s pretty clear there are activities that require you to take risks that, addressed and embraced, are constructive and have the potential to add to your life. These would include turning a deep interest into a profession, introducing yourself to a potential mentor, client, partner or lover, writing a book or creating a painting for public display.

Other activities, though, are substantially more likely to require risks that are likely to take away from the quality of your life. Those would be actions that place you in peril. And, while, occasionally justified by extreme circumstances, my focus is more on the willingness to take the day-to-day risks with the potential to enhance your life.

Guts and genes

Who hasn’t been in a scenario where you wished you had the guts to do something, but just couldn’t get it together to try? We tend to blame ourselves for “wimping out,” but interestingly enough, a solid chunk of gutsyness is not learned or conditioned, it’s genetic.

According to Jungian theory, we all have innate personality preferences or types. If you have kids or know anyone with kids, this is readily apparent. Two kids from the same parents literally come out of the womb with radically different personalities, temperaments and preferences.

Seeking to create a usable tool to identify genetic personality preferences some 60-years ago, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers created their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®). This tool allows you to determine your innate personality preferences. Indeed, you can even take variations of the MBTI® test online today. Give it a shot, it’ll only take 10 minutes. Then, see how close the results come to revealing your deep, dark secret personality traits.

I was blown away when I took mine. Part of my profile reveals a strong tendency toward introversion, which, for those who have known me for years, is not surprising. But, for those who know me only through business, it’s pretty shocking, since I make my living largely in the public eye.

So, genetics plays a strong role in your preference to take the various risk involved in being gutsy. And, according to most, there’s not a whole lot we can do to change that. But, another chunk of gustiness is actually not inherited, but learned.

Guts and environment

While we arrive on this planet with a certain attitudes about risk, our interactions, relationships and experiences as we go through life also play a major role in molding just how gutsy we are. The more we risk stepping out of our genetic comfort zones, the more opportunities we have to “learn” about the benefits of being gutsier and then “choose” to take those same actions again in an attempt to get those same feelings that came from our adventure in gutsyland.

Which begs the question…

If you didn’t inherit the gutsy-gene, what can you do about it?

First, you’ve got to ask yourself, “if I’m not too gutsy, do I really need to change?” The short answer is, it depends. A certain aversion to the risk of injury or death is natural and good. It stops you from being reckless.

But, if you have an irrational fear of injury, death, judgment, failure or embarrassment or simply an aversion to risk that stops you from participating in the everyday joys of life, that needs attention. Similarly, a certain amount of caution in social situations is fine, but when it engenders a level of fear that stops you from doing things that would add genuine joy to your life, it’s time to do something about it.

Here’s a three-step approach that’s gone a long way toward moving me past my natural tendency toward introversion and contemplation to regularly taking fairly major risks, both personal and business.

  1. Visualize gutsy action and success. Twice a day, visualize engaging in the activity that would require guts and then succeeding wildly. Make it as vivid and detailed as possible. Use all of your senses. Over time, this really helps to alleviate the anxiety/fear that holds you back. Through repetition, you tend to desensitize your fears and anxieties, while simultaneously reinforcing your belief that, should you take a gutsy action, you will succeed.
  2. Take incremental action. Pick a situation that gives you the opportunity to confront one of your fear-inducers in a controlled, supported, incremental and gentle manner. For example, if you have a fear of speaking in front of people, commit to a small weekly gathering of friends and begin speaking up, rather than scheduling a 20-minute presentation in front of your entire company. Then, begin to commit to events/actions that will allow you to confront your fear in increasingly more exposed situations. This process lets you experience serial success, builds confidence and gets you “incrementally gutsy” over time.
  3. Rinse and repeat. The more-often you engage in this process and succeed, the more you’ll believe in your ability to succeed and the more willing you’ll become to step out of your box.

Share your experiences, stories and other techniques to help make the transition from gutless to gutsy.

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