THE BLOG

Startups, Taking Risks and the Myth of the Edge

12/12/2012 06:18 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2013

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Unfortunately, not everyone gets to work with startups. Our company interacts with them nearly every minute of the day. Sometimes it's easy to forget that many people don't have the up-close and personal experience with this incredibly dynamic, high-paced section of the workforce. It's a lot of laughs, headaches, tough problems, big choices and many, many wows. While there are some things I would never advocate for anyone to replicate, there are many amazing lessons to be learned from the startup community, a couple of which I want to talk about below. Not every company can be a startup or be like a startup, but every company, every person and every community can implement some aspects of what -- in my humble opinion -- make startups a driving force in creating people who are dreamers, fighters and builders.

Take Risks

We are all too often governed by fear, due to a combination of biology and past experience. We have been programmed to retreat more often than we advance. Our brains create defenses for us to avoid fear, displeasure and dislike. At the same time, a negative past experience can hold us back from trying again. It takes four to five positive experiences to supersede a negative experience. At our core, we are more often professionally risk adverse then we should be. And it's contradictory because we are often able to incorporate extreme risk taking behavior into our personal lives. Think about all the times you stay out too late, date the person you shouldn't and book the vacation you can't quite afford. These are all the types of risks that we take frequently, often with impulsiveness. When it comes to our professional lives, we are less likely to expose ourselves, and act without trepidation and rumination over all possible consequences. We are uncomfortable asking for the raise, nervous about taking a project that we aren't sure we can excel at, and often fail to create company culture where risks are encouraged and rewarded.

This is not usually the case in startups. In fact their cultures are often built around the notion that risk isn't just accepted, it's an inherent part of growth and day-to-day functioning. New is the norm and to try things that you don't know and that haven't been done before is a daily reality. This doesn't mean everyone and everything comes up roses. In fact, there are dangerous consequences to this that often manifest themselves in negative aspects like pompous founders and incoherent strategies. However, I think the negative effects are worth it. Encouraging people to dream big, to try new things, and to constantly improve is something worth building a company culture around. It makes people more resilient and creative both at work and at home.

Finding the Edge

There is a pervasive myth in our society about what we are "capable of" and what we can bear. Sadly, these myths are often based in stories we start creating for ourselves at an early age. "I'm not good at math." "I can't do that because I don't understand it and I would fail." "If I fail it means there is something wrong with me." Without examination, these narratives about our capabilities can evolve into imaginary rules that define our lives. And who wants to be defined by what they think they can't do? These ideas of what we are and what we are not become our edges. They are the places we fear to get too close to lest we step out into empty space and enter into some kind of risk induced free fall.

When you work at a startup, you test your edges daily. You have to learn how to do things because there is no one else at the company who can do them. You have to work longer and harder in circumstances that you never thought you would or could. You have to solve problems that no else has. You have to find that one "big idea" and then you have to get hundreds and maybe millions of people to believe in it with you. Because that's what most of these companies started as, a shared idea. A couple people sitting down and saying, wouldn't it be amazing if there was a way for all of us to create beautiful photos and then share them with each other (Instagram). Or a guy listening to taxi drivers talk in short hand and deciding that it would be a cool way for everyone to communicate (Twitter).

It's a messy, complex, and difficult process, and for each Instagram there are hundreds if not thousands of companies that fail. But on an individual level that doesn't always matter. Even if your company didn't make it, you will often be changed for finding out that the edge was just an illusion. Those places that you and others were afraid to walk were just solid ground. You find out that the closer you got to the things you thought you couldn't handle, the further away they moved. So while everyone else was standing still and trying not to fall, you just kept walking.

Obviously there are many, many more lessons to be learned from startups that are more specific to operations or business strategy, but this isn't the HBR. There are already lots of places where we discuss cultivating demand and rapid product iteration, but (in my opinion) too few places where we talk about taking positive risks and pushing ourselves past our limits. And since it's rapidly approaching that time of year when we all get to imagine the ways we want to be better (New Year's), I hope that some of those resolutions involve giving your family, your employees and yourself permission to do more of what I talked about above. You will be amazed at what will happen when you allow others to try new things and push them into situations that force them outside their comfort zones.

As the esteemed Cecil Beaton once said we must all "be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert the integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creators of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary." Let's make 2013 the year that we walked to all of our edges and beyond.