Sunday, July 04, 2010

Message #6 - Take Risks

This is the sixth in a series of monthly messages:

Message #6 – Take Risks!

An Old Russian proverb says:

If we knew beforehand where we were going to fall, we could lay down a mattress.

The truth is I don’t know if this came from Old Russia or not. I found the attribution when I found the proverb and so I pass it on. It’s a good example of how misinformation is perpetuated, mindlessly, and takes on a life of its own. But I digress.

I want to talk about taking risks. My message is not complicated. Take Risks!

I’m not telling you to be stupid about it. I’m not saying you should check your common sense at the door. I am saying that being too careful is not the way to live your life. I am saying you should pay attention to the sarcastic Old Russian. He points out you can either take the safe, predictable path or you can step out and take a chance, not knowing in advance just how it is all going to turn out.

This business of risk-taking is a favorite subject for clever wordsmiths:

A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are made for.

We are continually hiding our light under a bushel because we feel safer that way

Karl Wallenda, the famous circus daredevil, said:

Being on the tightrope is living. Everything else is waiting.

Be a little careful with this one. Karl died when he fell off a tightrope stretched between two hotels in Puerto Rico.

You can’t steal second base if you always keep one foot on first.

Finally, Poet/Management Consultant David Whyte makes the point eloquently:

And the spark behind fear

recognized as life

leaps into flame

Always this energy smolders inside

when it remains unlit

the body fills with dense smoke.

It’s fair to ask, what is the point? Is taking risks worth it? Does the upside more than compensate for the downside? How do I know if I’m being smart or foolish?

Ask yourself, “What keeps me from taking risks?” If you’re pretty much like everyone else, and you are, here are some likely responses:

I’m afraid of failing.

I don’t know how to do it.

I’ll look foolish.

It’s not that I’m afraid of failing. I’m just too scared to try.

I’m not sure it’s the smart thing to do.

Now, ask the question again and use your own experience to answer it. Think of a time when you took a chance, when you tried something that you hadn’t done before and weren’t sure you could succeed. You won’t have to look far to find some examples.

You jumped into the deep end of the pool for the first time.

You asked that really cute girl to go out.

You interviewed for a job that seemed out of your reach.

You decided to make a soufflé even though everyone said ‘don’t even try.’

You said you’d raise $2,000 for breast cancer but had never before asked anyone for money.

You committed to improve the bottom line of your department by 50% during the coming year.

OK, what happened?

You didn’t drown.

She said ‘no.’

You didn’t get the job.

The soufflé was delicious.

You raised $2,300.

You improved the bottom line by 30%.

So you batted 50%. That’s either half good or half bad, depending on your point of view. But if you hadn’t taken any risks would you have been better off? Not likely. How did you feel, though, about stepping out beyond your comfort zone and challenging yourself? You felt great, didn’t you? Exhilarated. Triumphant. Proud of yourself.

That’s much more important than whether you made your target or got the job. Which is the point. It’s about you and you. It’s about how you live your life. It’s about not settling for half a loaf when there is a possibility that the full loaf can be had. Not a guarantee. A possibility. But without taking a risk there is no possibility. Maybe by accident you’d have succeeded anyway, but why leave it up to fate or good luck when you have what it takes to make your own luck?

I have an atypical relationship with risk. I tend to consider how risky something is after I’ve done it. Looking back I think, “I might have been intimidated had I given any real thought to that in advance.” And then, almost always I’m glad I did it.

Almost always. I can remember some times when brain fade took over and I did some truly stupid things. Two, both having to do with swimming, stand out for me.

The story begins innoncently enough. In 1974 I went down to Cozumel with my daughter Lys for a vacation. Lys was a very good scuba diver. The deep sea off the coast of Cozumel is a favorite spot for divers. We arranged to go out in a small boat so she could dive. There were half a dozen other people and a couple of professionals who would lead them down to the depths. Another person and myself were not going to dive. We were told that if we went into the water to swim or snorkel we should be aware that the boat would continue to follow the divers down below, not us.

I loved to snorkel even though I was a terrible swimmer. With a mask and snorkel I could go anywhere. Without them I could barely stay afloat. I knew that in deep water there wouldn’t be much to see, but I wanted to check it out, so after the divers headed down I left the boat too. I was by myself. I could see the group of divers far below as they neared the bottom, which was 125’ down. I didn’t notice that the current was taking me away from the boat. By the time I realized where I was I’d drifted quite a distance away. I didn’t panic, but I wasn’t far from that state.

I needed to fight the current to get back to the boat. I wasn’t a strong swimmer. It was a real challenge. Finally I made it, and by then I was tired and frightened. I realized I’d made a very bad decision and had lucked out in not paying for it. Time may have tricked my mind into increasing the distance I think I’d drifted from the boat. Even so, when I recall this episode I am terrified all over again.

Incredibly, I clearly hadn’t learned my lesson. Four years later, when I was in the Caribbean on an assignment for the United Nations I was stupid again in a similar way. I decided to swim across a channel off the coast of St. Lucia to a small island. Again I was alone. No companion to help in case of an emergency. I don’t know how far it was across the channel. Certainly a lot farther than I could swim without a mask and snorkel. In addition, the channel was used by large ships who were arriving or leaving the port in St. Lucia. They would never notice a lone swimmer in the water below.

I didn’t see any ships around, so in I went and headed off. I remember thinking my little island was further away than I thought it was. I don’t think I thought about drowning if my mask or snorkel failed. Finally I reached the island. So far so good. However, I was very tired and wondered if I had the strength to return. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much choice since the island was totally deserted. It was getting late in the day, and if it got dark I’d be stranded. So without sitting around to regain some strength I returned to the water for the trip home.

I made it without incident, but I was exhausted. At that point I again realized how dumb I’d been. I’m generally a risk-averse guy, so these water adventures were really out of character. I’ve never come up with an answer that explains my behavior.

To be accurate, I’m risk-averse when it comes to physical risks. For example, I’m a very defensive driver. I assume I’m surrounded by idiots with bad judgment who are quite capable of seriously damaging me and my vehicle. As my swimming adventures show, I’m willing to take on physical risks, but I’m much more likely to challenge myself in other aspects of life.

Most jobs I’ve had over the years have been challenging and risky. It would have been easy not to do well. That possibility didn’t enter my mind. I was quite willing to take them on without a second thought. I went with my instinct. The same with relationships. I was never worried that they might not work out.

I know many people who are the reverse. They’ll take on physical challenges without a second thought. Sky diving, scuba diving, mountain climbing, whatever. But put them face-to-face with a career or financial or relationship decision and they are totally at sea (so to speak).

You can either let your fears determine how far you’ll go or you can acknowledge that your fears are there and go ahead anyway. Either you are in charge of your life – or your fears are. The decision is yours.

Take Risks!


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