We all face risks or decisions to take risks everyday. Each of us then has a unique perspective on these risks, as well as our own individual risk tolerance level. There are many temporary circumstances that may affect how we perceive a risk at a given time, and those may change if we just wait.
So how do we go about deciding whether or not to take a risk?
My sense is that most of us are pretty good at evaluating risks. We first start by understanding whether there is an opportunity worth risking something for. Sometimes we find that what we are considering is merely something we wonder if we can do, and we see that there is no real value attached to the attempt that merits the associated risk.
If the opportunity has potential rewards, we then start to look at what could go wrong, or what risks are attached to that opportunity. These risks might be physical, financial, emotional or they might be a risk to our self-image, which is more powerful than most risks. I’m sure there are even more categories of risk that I’m forgetting, but the point is that risk shows itself to most of us, and if we have a slight bias towards “glass half empty” then many of these risks are a enough for us to pass on the opportunity. In addition, the bigger the change, the more likely we are to say no. Humans are generally change averse, preferring to stay with a less than ideal but familiar current state than to let go of what we know in order to try to obtain a more favorable but unfamiliar future state.
- We may let a job opportunity slide as we will be an unknown commodity at the new workplace.
- We may choose not to pursue a romantic relationship for fear of being hurt.
- We may keep working and not embrace retirement as we are uncertain about our financial future.
- We may not speak up in front of influential people because we might make a mistake.
We clearly see the risks associated with saying yes, but do we actually assess what risks are associated with saying no? That may seem like somewhat of a redundant question, but what if we took it to another level? What might we unknowingly be turning away from? In effect, what are we risking by refusing to take a risk? This is the realm of unintended consequences. Let’s have a look at a few of those.
We only grow when we leave our comfort zone. When we leave our comfort zone there is always some form of risk. Generally, this shows up in the form of feeling vulnerable. We know we can shield ourselves from failure or judgment (by others or by ourselves) by continuing to play it safe. Or as a friend of mine says, “by playing small to hide our greatness”.
But what would happen if we try something new and succeed? We gain a lot of things: confidence, new skills, emotional resilience, etc. Generally, I think this is the fundamental value we receive when we balance decision-making in favour of risk-taking. We learn and we grow. For me, that’s a risk worth taking.
What comes after the opportunity?
So often when we evaluate an opportunity, we are really only able to look at what is right in front of us. We see what benefits we might derive directly from that opportunity, and we see the risks associated with accepting it. What we don’t (and perhaps can’t) consider are the next opportunities that may open up for us by saying yes. Here’s a personal example.
When I was 25 I worked for IBM in Toronto. My boss came to me and asked if I wanted to take an assignment in Vancouver. It was a promotion, he said, and they don’t come along every day. There were financial incentives as well, but I was worried about saying yes. It is more than 3,000 kilometers from Toronto, I didn’t know anyone and I was aware of Vancouver’s reputation for rain. I knew that promotions for young guys weren’t that rare, so it was possible to reap many of the benefits by saying no.
I don’t know why I said yes but I did, so I now know what I would be missing if I hadn’t. I learned to love Western Canada. I learned to love to travel and see new places. I became really active and fit. I now have a love of the ocean. I met my wife in Western Canada. I have kids, a granddaughter, many great new friends and a house ready to be built on the coast. I left IBM in order to be able to remain in Western Canada, and learned to be an executive. The risk I would have taken by saying no to this opportunity was to deny myself a rewarding career, a new lifestyle and family.
There is a value to allowing life to take us along for a ride, instead of gripping the reins tightly. We resist giving up control, but if we stay stuck where we are we will get more of what we have always got. I can’t imagine life if I had said no back then. How do we factor that into our risk decision-making?
Just imagine for a minute that we are a caterpillar crawling around eating leaves. We move pretty slowly and don’t get to see much in life as our eyes are always down looking at our next meal of the same stuff we’ve eaten our entire life. We feel the urge to spin a cocoon but decide that it’s too risky. What if we don’t like it in the cocoon? What if we don’t come out of the cocoon? What will life be like after the cocoon?
We know the end of this story … but is it possible that we actually do this to ourselves in real life? We feel the need to undergo a transition, to let go of our current way of being and move to our next stage in life. But we actually hang on to our old way and refuse the beckoning transition.
Need an example? How about considering retirement? We’ve had a great career and achieved what we set out to do. We’ve saved for our future, and although financial planning is always uncertain we feel good about it. But we hang onto the idea of working. We have a hard time imagining what is on the other side of the decision to pull the plug on work. What will our identity be then? What will happen to my “work friends”? What will I do every day?
Like the caterpillar, we have a hard time imagining what life on the other side will look like. In transitions such as this, perhaps it is a good time to ask for help, perhaps a coach who can act as your objective thinking partner. Sometimes we need help in defining our rewarding future, and discovering our hidden obstacles (perhaps fears). A rewarding second half of adult life is something big … perhaps too big to risk. Same with most beckoning transitions.