Taking Smart Risks

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.                                                                                    – Helen Keller

It’s the knot in your stomach. It’s staring at the ceiling at 4am. It’s the addictive euphoria. It’s the satisfaction of growth. It’s the intangibles of risk taking.

In his book Taking Smart Risks, Doug Sundheim perfectly articulates the multidimensionality of risk taking. When we think of risk takers in a professional sense we think of the big names, both positive and negatively – Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Travis Kalanick. But what about the importance of everyday risk taking. Are you making progress but not quickly enough? Taking chances but not boldly enough? Going out on a limb but not far enough? These are important elements that could make the difference between ultimate success and turning back to the mediocrity of the safety zone.

While studying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, researchers found that after the basic survival needs, humans are most satisfied with their daily life when they are in growth mode even compared to a stable existence on a higher level. What this tells us is most of us, whether we realize it or not, would rather be moving, growing and taking risks than remaining stagnant.  And yet the majority of people cling to their comfort zones like ivy clings to brick.  

Risk taking and growth are key elements to success in our interactions with others as well.  In fact, it’s the core of meaningful relationships. We put forth our time, initiative, and emotions, making another human our priority with the hope for reciprocation. Sometimes the risk pays off, and we grow friendships, lovers or business allies. Sometimes the risk fails and we learn, refocus and begin again.  Whether personal or professional, we lose touch with those around us if we allow comfort or fear to overtake vulnerability. For those unwilling to break their risk aversion, the world becomes a very small place. Creativity needs the freedom of risk taking like flames need oxygen. In its absence, it will be snuffed out.

My own career journey was once reflective of this phenomenon. For years I unknowingly followed the same professional pattern. A job was newly created, someone pitched me to take it, and I thrived in the ambiguity and creativity of this blank canvas environment. Then inevitably, 3-5 years later, I would become restless, bored and without meaning.  For years I wrote off these feelings as personal inadequacies. Perhaps I was too impatient, too much a gypsy soul, never satisfied. Only once I began to study entrepreneurs did I begin to understand my own self. I was a textbook Intreprenuer. I hold all the desires, creativities and competencies that make up successful entrepreneurs, save one…I was never willing to make the leap out on my own. I moved from job to job looking for those chances to take risks, use my creativity and grow but within someone else’s organization it would only be an early stage fleeting time period. Then the role I was in would be expected to settle and my own creativity would slowly die.

And so, on a drizzly day in September 2016, from a side street in Corsica, France, I took a deep breath, dialed my then boss back in Tampa and put in my notice. It was my first real leap. I left the comfort of my well-paid, benefit-heavy University administration job for the uncertain future of revitalizing a failing nonprofit and growing a start-up research institute.

If you are doing the math, you realize this has been less than a year’s journey yet already I have weathered a roller coaster of success and failure. And yet, not one day have I ever regretted my decision. For me, the joy of the growth environment has brought an unparalleled sense of meaning to my life.

My life’s mission is to transform the culture of the non-profit sector by diversifying their financial models and encouraging social enterprise ventures. This is no small endeavor but as with any large project, we begin one step at a time. By and large, the non-profit industry is one of, if not THE most risk averse industries in the world. Overhead scrutiny, mission creep criticism and fear from lack of finance knowledge are just a few of the reasons why this is so.

Starting conversations about smart risks can begin to chip away at the many misconceptions surrounding risk. Regardless of your role or your industry, use these three tips as a way to begin.

1.     Mirror Mirror on the Wall.   Many of us spend an egregious amount of time justifying or simply ignoring our own risk aversion. Do a self-assessment, whether personally or for your business, on places you could push harder, go farther out on a limb, move faster. Be honest with yourself about what is holding you back. Most likely it is fear. How can you overcome it? I highly encourage using Sundheim’s risk assessment tool as a guide as well.

2.              The Perils of No Decision. Keep in mind that there are many consequences to not taking risks, most importantly lost opportunity. These are not always easy to define but if you get very real, they do become obvious.

3.              New Day, New Decision. Many people struggle with making uncertain leaps because they have overblown the finality of it. In every decision we make, we have the power to make a new choice later. Life is ever changing and our options are endless. Make the best choices you can, with the information you have and when they no longer suit you, simply make a new choice.

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears. – Nelson Mandela

And as always…

What are you InPursuit of?

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