Risky Business: Why Taking Risks is the Key to Career Success

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” ~JK Rowling, Harvard Commencement Address

If there is one thing I remember from Psych 101, Econ 101, and the post-grad rush to accept jobs with two-year contracts, it’s that most people dislike taking risks. Entire industries have evolved to remove risk from our lives, and our cultural lexicon is filled with risk-averse language: “I wouldn’t want to risk it,” “not worth the risk,” “a risky proposition.” It’s not our fault – we’ve evolved this way because it helps us survive.

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But if you approach your career with this same risk-aversion, you will probably survive, but you will never thrive. Getting by doesn’t get you noticed, and you won’t find it fulfilling. However, recognizing the value of risk, and actually getting yourself to take a risk, are two very different things. Here are some thoughts to help psych yourself up for the plunge. (That risk-averse language sure makes it sound terrifying, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, it won’t be so bad.)

1.  Ask Yourself:  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

This question – which Mark Zuckerberg now famously asked Sheryl Sandberg – is a powerful one, and it can be the key to evaluating and evolving your approach to risk.

So quick – what’s your answer? Would you sign up for that networking event? Cold call a recruiter at your dream company? Ask someone to be your mentor? Start your own business? Take a new job?

Whatever your answer, you’ve now identified a key area in your life where you could take more risk – it’s a concrete example of something that you want to do, but that risk is holding you back from. Asking this question will focus you on a particular area, while also getting you to think more positively by thinking about the rewards.

2.  Evaluate Your Risk (with Actual Logic)

Not all leaps of faith carry equal amounts of risk, which is why it is important to ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?” Don’t just throw the question out there without thinking, like a dumb movie character five seconds before being eaten by a wild animal. But don’t just assume the worst either. Really ask yourself; do a cost-benefit analysis if you have to.

For the small stuff: the fear of failure is so strong that it can keep us from taking risks – even when the stakes are incredibly low. If your answer to “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” is something like “I would cold-call a recruiter,” then examining the worst-case scenario can give you the boost you need. Often the biggest risk we face is hearing “no,” which can be a blow to our sensitive egos, but it should never be enough to deter us from putting ourselves and our ideas out there. So go for it!

For the big risks: here’s where it gets harder, because “the worst” can actually be pretty bad. The risk of taking a new job or starting a new company is significant – I don’t need to outline it for you because I’m sure your imagination can quickly lead itself along that downward spiral. But don’t let that initial fear stop you from conducting a real cost-benefit analysis. What is the likelihood that the worst will occur? What sort of back up plan will make you feel better about the situation? What could you do to improve the situation if it starts to take a bad turn? And, of course, visualize the reward again – what is the best that could happen?

3.  Learn What You’re Capable Of

What lies outside your comfort zone? Discomfort, and your greatest accomplishments. Taking risks, whether they are big or small, is essential for pushing yourself and achieving personal growth. If you don’t push yourself to take risks, you’ll never develop new skills. You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try. Besides, aren’t your most satisfying accomplishments always the ones you weren’t certain you could achieve?

4.  Show Others What Your Capable Of

One of the most motivating things I can say about risk is this: it is essential, not optional, in advancing your career. When you go on your next job interview, you may be asked to describe the following scenarios:

  • A process you improved
  • A time you challenged your team or boss
  • A time you went above and beyond your job description

Companies ask you these questions because their MVPs do these things. These actions feel risky at the time, but they ultimately add value to your team. Giving your opinion, even if it goes against the grain, is important; chances are the company is paying you to contribute your thoughts and judgment. And again, what’s the worst that could happen?

So the next time you see an opportunity that scares you, keep the above interview questions in mind for extra motivation.

5.  Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

If you take a risk and succeed, you will gain self-confidence, new skills, new connections, and new inspiration. But if you fail, you can still gain new skills, new connections, and new inspiration, even if the endeavor itself turns out to be a dead end. Failure isn’t the end at all, and learning how to accept and make the most of it is yet another skill that you will gain by taking risks.

Samuel Beckett once wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Learning from failure is an important process that can give you the courage to try again, and ultimately lead you down the road to success. It is admittedly a winding road, but you will get much further “failing better” each time than by never trying at all.

Have you ever taken a risk that ultimately helped you? Share your experiences in the comments!

About the Author

Lauren Campbell is an Advertising Executive who loves brand strategy, writing, and baking layer cakes. You can reach her with questions and comments on LinkedIn.

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