It's a scary concept. Risk, by definition, involves exposing yourself to hazard, loss, or injury. Risk is therefore usually internalized as something to avoid. After all, most companies try to minimize risk in business activity to remain successful; many people avoid high-risk physical activities to reduce bodily harm; and more often than not people follow the rules to limit the risk of getting in trouble. Yet it also seems that people fear taking risks because they fear failure.
"There's a huge problem with the word failure," says Tina Seelig, author of InGenius and my teacher in Stanford's Design School. While many people feel that a personal or professional failure is to be avoided at all costs, Tina argues that failure can be extremely beneficial. She draws an analogy, saying, "As a scientist, when I do an experiment that doesn't work as I expected, what do I call it? Data. It's not a failure."
Tina teaches a class called Creativity and Innovation, which includes a workshop on risk. She finds this particular lesson crucial to the class because many students are groomed to stay within the lines of what is proven to work to get excellent grades. When the education objective is to be a perfect student, there is very little room to take risks. The problem is, avoiding risks isn't particularly helpful in the real world.
The benefits of risk-taking aren't just abstract ideas people hope for. Many great successes in our world come from people or groups taking risks. We see this in high-profile cases, such as Steve Jobs dropping out of college to start Apple, as well as in smaller cases, including my new friend Carly Heitlinger putting her personal life on public display for her highly successful blog The College Prepster.
How do we know which risks are the right ones to take? By trying and seeing what happens. The possible results are: 1) you get the positive outcome you hoped for, 2) you get better than the outcome you hope for, or 3) you don't get the outcome you hoped for. Regardless of what happens, you learn something from it and act accordingly. Some people may learn that they can't escape the negative aspects of taking that kind of risk, while others may feel completely liberated by it. There's only one way to find out.
I recently spoke on a panel for Women Innovate Mobile's Meet the Innovators talk series at the Apple SoHo store about personal branding (you can watch it here). We visited the topic of risk and how to go about dealing with it when you're developing as a person, brand, or company. Kate White, former editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan, brought up an example with J.K. Rowling. Rowling recently released a novel of a new genre for her under a pseudonym. She took a risk, straying from her normal genre, but kept her identity secret.
White would have used her established brand to promote the potentially risky book from the beginning, whereas fellow panelist Holly Lynch of The 85-Percent supported Rowling's decision to shield her identity. As it turned out, Rowling received great critical acclaim, but low sales until the public found out she was the author. While her true identity may have served as a safety blanket, it's hard to imagine that Rowling didn't learn from her risk. She also probably has a better idea of how she can best handle taking risks in the future.
The Rowling debate got me thinking about how I handle risk-taking. Racecar driving, by nature, is a risky sport. Since I started in go-karts at age 10 I have always risked many things, including my physical well-being, by going out on the racetrack. Every great racer takes those risks head-on. But I found that as I developed as a racer I had more on the line: more expensive crash damage, a public persona, sponsors, and fans. I also had less time in the car because of the high expenses of racing and being in school, so every risk I took was extremely calculated.
I took the risk to go to college (would a serious racer go to college?), to move to North Carolina for a summer to intern at the NASCAR team Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (would it be scary to live completely alone?), to publicly define who I am via social media (would I be able to deal with the criticism?). Because my efforts at trying to be a NASCAR champion had so much on the line I believed I had to aggressively analyze costs and benefits. In hindsight, I wish I just dove in and risked it "bigger, better, and more badass," as Kate White said in our discussion.
It is now clear that the benefits of taking risks head-on usually outweigh the downsides. By being open about my risk taking I am learning to be smart in my risk-taking, I am inviting people to grow with me and my risk-taking, and when I crash, physically and figuratively, I am learning how to quickly pick myself back up and take bigger and better risks. With bigger and better risks come the potential for bigger and better successes. I am there now.
We can all get there.
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