The recently released controversial Peter Rabbit movie reminded me that one of my favorite childhood stories was Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of the spunky bunny whose misadventures in Farmer McGregor’s vegetable garden were told as though they were meant to teach kids to mind their mothers and shy away from risky behavior.
I, however, drew five distinctly different lessons from it.
Briefly, the story is this: Peter and his three sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, lived with their mother Mrs. Josephine Bunny, in a cozy rabbit hole. The protective Mrs. Bunny sternly warned her brood that while they could play in various places, they must never, ever go into Farmer McGregor’s garden. Surely terrible consequences would befall them there, as she recounted had happened to other rabbits.
The three girls obeyed but Peter went straightaway into the forbidden territory, where he blissfully munched on carrots, radishes, and French beans. It was rabbit paradise—until the farmer saw him and gave chase. Peter got away after a series of heart-pounding near captures, but he lost his new blue jacket and a shoe and arrived home bedraggled. Mrs. Bunny punished her bad boy by putting him to bed without supper, whereas Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail “who were good little bunnies” feasted on blackberries and cream.
I must have asked my grandmother, who was my main caregiver, to read this book to me hundreds of times.
What I took away from it:
- Those girls led boring lives.
- The boy had all the fun, not to mention yummy veggies.
- You can take risks and survive.
- Even if you lose your cool new jacket, at least you have had an interesting experience.
- Even if the farmer had caught Peter, other people would still have interesting stories to tell about him.
So, in my four-year-old mind, I would much rather have been Peter than all of his sisters combined. Even then, I would opt for action and new adventures over sedentary obedience. How lucky was I, for how many girls have been influenced by cultural conditioning to be good, be still, be quiet?
All of which, as my friend Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, pointed out to me, are the characteristics that make women successful in school and lag behind in leadership in all professions.
A “bias toward action,” to quote leadership guru Tom Peters’ term, is a key to being an effective leader let alone being seen as a leader and tapped for leadership roles.
When many years later I had the opportunity to visit Potter’s home and a replica of what might have been Farmer McGregor’s garden (but was really hers) in the beautiful English Lake District, I had the feeling that she too related more to Peter than to his more cautious and well-behaved siblings. An accomplished artist and conservationist as well as a writer of over 20 children’s books, she bought and ran her own farm, unusual and often impossible for a woman in the late 19th century. It’s good to acknowledge that as Women’s History Month approaches.
“You can take risks and survive.”
This is the most resonant of the five lessons I derived from the rascally rabbit. While I struggled for much of my life with the same consequences of stereotype threat that are prevalent when women and minorities abrogate their assigned roles, eventually I found that by flexing my courage muscles to step out of that comfort zone, I inevitably felt stronger, braver, and more confident in my ability to achieve any goal I might set for myself.
Many studies have found that men take more physical and financial risks than women, though others say that framing risk-taking through that male-dominated lens fails to recognize that women simply take different sorts of risks , such as jeopardizing careers in order to spend more time parenting.
And of course, the flip side of risk is reward. My husband had a long, successful career as an insurance executive. So not surprisingly in our household, he is the cautious one when it comes to money and I am the risk taker. I am pretty sure Peter got another jacket eventually, so the loss was not devastating, and in any case, the opportunity to explore a new territory has greater value to me than remaining safe. I throw my anchor with America’s first female Rear Admiral and computer programming adventurer Grace Hopper who said, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”
Of course, no one wants to be done in by risk-taking, but then risk takers rarely think they will be, even when the odds are not in their favor. Watching the snowboarding feats at the Olympics this week, I found myself asking repeatedly, “How do they ever muster the courage to try that flip or jump the first time?” That wouldn’t be a risk I’d take, but, hey, to each her own. Even when you crash, you have a good story. Especially when you crash.
I’m sure when Peter was an elderly rabbit, he was recounting to his grandbunnies the time he lost one of his shoes among the cabbages while Farmer McGregor chased him, wielding a net.
And after all Jamie Anderson still took silver despite a fall.
So, the next time you are faced with a challenge, ask yourself these questions about your risk tolerance.
- Am I avoiding risk to comply with cultural pressures or my own desires?
- What exactly is the risk? The reward?
- What would (insert person you admire) do?
- How would taking this risk align with my personal values and goals?
- What’s the worst that can happen? Am I prepared to accept that so I can take the risk wholeheartedly?