Day 18 – Reflections on Taking Risk

(This post is part of the 30 for 30 Challenge)

Yesterday, I participated in an alumni organized professional development teleconference.  The topic of conversation was “risk”, the different facets surrounding the concept, and our personal approach to taking risk, or not. I was asked to think back to a time when I took a large risk, and how I approached making the decision. My immediate first thought was that of deciding to go to graduate school.

Going to graduate school was a very big risk for me.  At the time I got the idea in my head, I was enjoying a full-time cushy government job, with a pension, and a capped 40-hour work week. Sure, life was a little beige and boring, but at least it was fairly secure and predictable. I decided to leave all of this, take on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and pursue a career path in field fraught with uncertainty and financial woes – the Arts. Some might call this a risky decision. That being said, I probably couldn’t have picked a better time to return to school.  It was the midst of the economic recession that hit hard in late 2008/early 2009, and everyone was reassessing their professional worth.

Fast forward a few years, and somehow, with a lot of interning, networking, and no doubt a hefty helping of luck, I landed a job in the very field I hoped I would find myself in after graduate school.

Now almost five years at the company and three promotions later, I’m head of my department.  It all happened so fast, but it happened, and now I’m here. I am pretty comfortable now with all the ins and outs of my department. Most everything now feels fairly routine and predictable.  Because of this, I’ve begun to wonder if I’m playing it too safe – that is, not taking any risks.

The facilitator of the teleconference asked each of us to describe a time at our jobs when we took risk and failed, and what the consequences were.  I honestly had a hard time coming up with something.  The thought then occurred to me: Am I so afraid of failing that I never put myself in opportunities where I possibly can fail?  Or, is it that I’m just THAT good and so I never fail at anything I set out to do? I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the former.

This realization about myself has got me thinking about risk not only that I take in my own professional life, but also in general.

One thing I am very slowly seeing through my job and personal experiences is that risk is inherent to everything we do, and it is okay to take some risk as long as one understands the possible risk/reward outcomes.  Take the common activity of selling something off of Craigslist. Sure, there is always the risk that you could get robbed in the process, or worse, but it is highly unlikely, and you sure could use that extra $50 right about now.   It’s a silly example, but a real one that we make all the time.

Professionally, risk is the budget projections you made for your department, or the decision you made to hire a particular person. They could very easily turn out to be bad decisions, but they are decisions you have to make, and ones made with the best of intentions using the most current information available to us at the time.

Most outcomes to the professional decisions we make are mildly risky at best. It’s important to realize that.  Unless you have a job where someone can potentially die if you make the wrong decision, worrying about failing at something is a complete waste of one’s time. The inability to make decisions about these things or any thing, is a paralyzing way to live your life, both professionally and personally. I know people like this. People who are so afraid of a potential outcome that they sit at home and don’t interact with the world for fear that whatever negative outcome they’ve concocted in their minds will most definitely come true if they step one foot into that situation.

One of the keys approaches to allowing oneself to take measured risk is to have a good understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and not only that, but also building a team of people around you to fill the skills gap left by your own personal/professional weak areas. So for example, you may be someone who is really good at coming up with the big grand ideas, and thinking “big picture”, but terrible at the nitty-gritty work of executing it.  What you need is a person who is very good at planning and executing other people’s ideas.  They might not have many ideas of their own, but boy are they organized and projected oriented.  Knowing how to recognize these strengths in yourself and your team can allow one to take a much more measured approach to risk.

More measured risk has the potential to open up more opportunities. It’s the idea of “putting yourself out there”. It’s also kind of like the Do Something Principle that I wrote about in a previous post.  If you don’t take risks, and DO SOMETHING, nothing can or will ever happen. Consequentially, advancements in your career, or changes in your personal life (new friends or romantic interests) do not have the opportunity to happen without taking risk.

This writing project I am currently undertaking is a small form of risk, albeit personal. Granted, no one is holding me accountable except for myself, but the possibility is there that I won’t be able to write 30 blog posts in 30 days.  Believe me, I think about every morning when I get up now. I have set myself up with a very difficult challenge. There is a personal risk involved in feeling like I will have failed if I am not able to accomplish it on time. There is also the risk of putting all of this out there for everyone to see, and resolving publicly that I will do what I say I’m going to do (assuming people actually read this blog).

A few takeaways from the call and my reflections on risk:

  • Most people are risk averse, including myself, and do everything they can to maintain the status quo.
  • Fear is a very debilitating emotion. It inhibits rational action.
  • Being okay with failure is an important first step in allowing oneself to take risk
  • With new risks come the potential for beneficial outcomes, opportunities, and personal development.

Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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