Think of the people in history you admire most. From Gandhi to Churchill, from Abraham Lincoln to Queen Elizabeth, from Albert Einstein to Isaac Newton, from Florence Nightingale to Diana Princess of Wales, or even from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson, all have one quality most emphatically in common: They took risks.
Risk-taking is misunderstood. At first blush, it brings to mind climbing a mountain peak, jumping out of an airplane, or even the more mundane business of quitting a job. All of these things certainly do qualify as taking a risk (and there’s a long, illustrious history of job-quitting successful entrepreneurs) but this isn’t the most useful way to think about it.
Risk-taking is better and more usefully understood as a growth mindset. We all have big life decisions that involve risk, but the reality is that life is comprised of hundreds of thousands of much smaller decisions (one study estimates an average of 773,000 decisions in a lifetime), all that involve some amount of risk. Our decision-making machinery is much the same for big and small matters, so it’s worth getting under the hood and making sure things are running optimally and in a way that encourages growth. This applies equally to your life and career.
Here’s the tricky thing: many decisions we make we barely know we are making. This can be a real humdinger, because it allows little fears to litter our mode of decision-making. “Where there is fear, there is no intelligence,” wrote the great Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti. Meaning we often cruise along making timid decisions unaware we are doing so.
We’ve assembled a few ways to think a bit more consciously about risk-taking accompanied by takeaways regarding how to apply this growth-mindset to better be the master of your own destiny.
Don’t Get So Comfortable
It’s easier to do the things you’ve always done, whether that means the same job, staying only in familiar places, eating the food you’ve always eaten, or spending time within the same circle of friends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this; these are your habits of being. The Dalai Lama makes a beautiful distinction, however, about the difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure, like comfort, in an instantaneous phenomenon; happiness is a state of being. Sometimes pleasure is at odds with our long-term happiness. We are all ingenious in the ways we find to stay within our comfort zone; it’s easier and more pleasurable to stay within what we know. You’ve got to be proactive about growing, and a fundamental law seems to be that growth comes with a little bit of discomfort, whether it’s a new tooth breaking in as a child or acquiring a new skill as an adult.
Say you’ve always feared public speaking. At work, you’ve turned down dozens of opportunities to take the lead on something, because it involved speaking to groups of people. It made your days easier, but deep down, it killed you a little bit each time, a slow death by a thousand swords. “One who is not afraid to die lives, and one who is afraid to live dies,” wrote author and entrepreneur Matshona Dhliwayo. But this isn’t always about an obvious life or death situation. This is just about not living to the fullest of your capabilities. So take that risk: sign up for that speaking gig, take an improv class, travel to unfamiliar places, befriend strangers, speak up at the office meeting, climb that mountain, literally or figuratively. Step up. Harness your own power.
The worlds of both science and business are playing fields of risk. The scientific method, in fact, is based on risk. It is estimated more than 90 percent of lab experiments fail; failure is essential to learning. “Creativity and discovery necessarily involve risk so there will be dark days for you,” said Alan Heeger, directly after winning the Nobel Prizein physics. “But dealing with that risk is a part of the thrill and satisfaction.”
Consider the biggest risk famed business magnate Richard Branson says he ever took. He was a young hotshot entrepreneur, having founded Virgin Records, which was not only highly profitable but one of the coolest music companies ever, one that seemed to come out of nowhere yet rose to global brand status in a few years. So, what did Branson do? He launched an airline company, Virgin Air. He made sure his risk was calculated one — he was entering the unknown, so he did so measuredly.
“One of the first big deals I did was buying a secondhand 747 from Boeing,” Branson told Forbes magazine. “I was going from a record company to the airline business, so the key thing in that deal was that if it didn’t work out, I could hand the 747 back to Boeing after the first year. It wasn’t going to bankrupt our record company or the other things we’d started. So every decade, I have experience based on things that have gone wrong and gone right, and the little computer in my brain is computerizing everything that’s gone before. But as I get older, I’ve got to be careful not to get more conservative in my decision-making, which some other people do.”
What has the result been? Branson, now one of the wealthiest men on the planet, has launched Virgin Galactic, which will take civilians to space — and he’ll be one of its first passengers.
The moral of this tale is about how worlds unfold for those who not only take the risk of doing new things, but who do so as a way of life. So even if you are successful in one field of endeavor, be careful not to get too comfortable. Keep expanding. Eventually you will almost certainly do something you didn’t comprehend was possible.
Avoiding Risk is Still a Risk
“People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year,” wrote philosopher and author Peter Drucker, known as the “father of modern management.” This is a corollary lesson to the fact that not taking action is an action in itself. It’s a good idea to do a cost/benefit analysis of the risks you consider — it can be a simple as writing down a list of pros and cons — but the important thing is to ponder them in the first place. A risk-taking, growth mindset isn’t just about doing things, but about moving your mind. Talk to leaders at work or within your field, or people you admire; study your heroes, and how they acted in the world, how they approached risk; talk to people who you’ve seen successfully take risks, ask them how they handle discomfort, how they prepare for challenging situations. “It is hard to fail,” said Theodore Roosevelt. “But it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
Staying static is the biggest risk of all, one in which world of wonders passes you by. Engage yourself. New worlds await. Blast off.