Why Don’t We Take More Risks?

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We all love a risk-taker, don’t we? The business owner, the entrepreneur, the CEO who has a big idea, then boldly rolls the dice with a “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” attitude. We look at them with wonder and envy, and jealously applaud them when they make it big. We hear people tell us, “You have to take risks in business if you want to make it big,” and we nod our heads in agreement, sit back in our metaphorical leather chairs smoking our metaphorical pipes and respond sagely, “Yes, yes, risks. Must take risks.”

And then we go back to doing what we’ve always been doing.

Look, we all know that, almost without exception, nothing great is ever achieved without some element of risk. And we all want to achieve something great, don’t we? (Don’t we?) So if we all agree that great achievements require risk, and we all want to achieve great things, what’s the problem? Why aren’t we taking more risks?

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s easy to take risks when you’ve got nothing to lose. Let me give you two examples:

  • If you’re down to your last nickel, and are about to go to debtor’s prison anyway (apparently I’m writing this from the context of a Dickens novel), it’s not that big a risk to bet that nickel on a horse at Saratoga. If the horse wins and you become a millionaire, good for you! And if the horse loses, you’re really not any worse off than you were before, are you? (And no, I don’t think it’s really possible to bet a nickel on a horse and make a million bucks. I was exaggerating to achieve the dramatic effect that you just experienced.)
  • Bill Gates bets a million dollars on a horse at Saratoga. The horse loses, and so does Bill. But for Bill Gates, a million bucks really is nothing. So he’s got nothing to lose either.

The problem is the middle ground, where most of us live. We’re not down to our last nickel; nor can we afford to throw away a million dollars. In other words, we have something to lose. And you never read about the ones who roll the dice and come up empty, do you?

The fact is, sometimes risks don’t pay off. That’s why they call them “risks.” If they were sure things, they’d call them, well, “sure things.” Most of us are, to some extent, risk-averse. So what to do about it? Try this:

Take a small risk.

Do it today. Take a small risk. Build up your risk tolerance. And take a larger risk tomorrow.

The Beatles took a small risk when they switched from wearing leather jackets on stage to wearing suits and ties. That paid off, so they were able to take larger and larger risks, to the point where they actually quit giving concerts at a time when that was considered career suicide. But by then, of course, the Beatles were the Bill Gates of the rock world; plus, they had built up their risk tolerance. They were used to it. Taking risks had become such a part of who they were that it was actually within their comfort zone. And they achieved something great.

What risk will you take today in order to achieve something great tomorrow?


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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  • Rachel McTague says:

    Yes. Agreed. Had the Beatles taken too big a risk to start off with…..say, wearing tuxedos…..then we would have called them the Penguins and that would have been the end of it (or we would have had to trade out their guitars for hockey sticks).

    Okay, so, don’t risk everything. But does the seemingly little risk…the first step…also lose you everything? What if early fans of the Beatles had turned coat on them, had reviled them, for wearing Establishment clothing? Could they have rescued themselves from nowhereland by quickly reverting to the hip youth outfits of the 60s? How big a little risk should I take is the question I ask myself.

  • That’s a great question, Rachel: How bit a little risk should I take? When I was producing my comedy TV show, if one of the writers came up with a sketch that didn’t go over very well, our stock line was, “Well…it’s not a career-ending sketch.” So my suggestion to you would be to avoid taking a “career-ending” risk. Just like investing money, don’t risk more than you can afford to lose. Think about your own comfort zone. Imagine a risk that would be at the very edge of that zone. Then go just a little bit further. That’s the risk you should take.

  • Linda Keith says:

    Bill…I like the ‘little risk as a start idea’. As a banking consultant and small business loan trainer, my entire business world is about risk. Assessing it. Taking it.

    As a business owner, what do you think about this addition? While assessing each risk, I consider if it is a good fit. This requires a very clear concept of your strategic focus so you can decide if there is enough pay-off to that risk, whatever size.

    And I try to have more than one ‘iron in the fire’. If I take five small risks that fit my strategic objective and one pays big, I have made more progress than one small risk at a time.

    BTW…is the prize for a well-thought out comment on your blog a leather jacket the Beatles don’t need anymore anyway?

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