We’re often told to focus on the reward, rather than the risk.
We’re told that if we focus exclusively on the risk involved in projects, we’ll be disinclined to take the risks needed to really reach our potential. We’re told that risk is necessary in order to evolve, and that to decline to take risks is to stay in our comfort zone and limit ourselves indefinitely.
There’s an element of truth to this, to be sure. If nothing else, it’s an impractical life strategy to only bet on “sure things.” If we only bet on sure things, we’re choosing stability (or maybe even the illusion of stability) over the potential for growth.
In order to grow, there is an extent to which we often need to embrace unfamiliarity, discomfort, and, yes: risk.
That said: not all risks are created equal.
Just because something is scary or outside of your comfort zone doesn’t mean it’s a risk worth taking.
There are plenty of people who have taken risks, but been denied the reward they assumed was coming to them for stepping out of their comfort zones.
One of the subjects I write about most often in this blog is the development and maintenance of high, healthy self-esteem. My approach to self-esteem isn’t suddenly, blindingly transformational; rather, it’s grounded in the premise that your brain notices your day-to-day choices, and adjusts its level of self-respect, its appraisal of your worthiness and efficacy, accordingly. Most notably, your brain notices your choices about whether to think or not think; whether you treat yourself with respect and kindness; whether you behave with integrity; and whether you direct your life purposefully.
These consistent decisions— or, maybe more accurately, patterns in decision-making— form the basis of self-esteem.
One big choice that flows from these broad categories of choices is what risks you decide to take.
Are you risking intelligently?
What makes for an intelligent risk?
It matters whether our risks are intelligent. It goes to the question of whether we’re thinking, or going on autopilot. It goes to whether we’re treating ourselves well. It even goes to the question of whether we’re behaving with integrity— that is, whether we’re behaving in a way that is consistent with our appraisals and values.
It matters, big time, to our self-esteem, in other words.
There is no shortage of risks that are available to take in this world. We take risks every time we step outside our front door. But whether a risk is intelligent or not depends on three things: whether we understand a reasonable amount about the nature of the risk; the connection between the risk and the reward (i.e., our goals, our very reason for taking that risk); and our ability to be flexible in responding to a risk that turns out to be different than we imagined.
For example: crossing the street is a risk. There are cars and inattentive drivers out there. (Trust me, I live in Chicago— I know this fact better than most.)
Is crossing the street on my way to the office a risk worth taking?
Well, let’s see: what do I understand about the risk?
I understand that there are cars out there. I understand there are inattentive drivers out there. I also understand there are crosswalks and traffic lights out there that many, if not most, of the drivers on the road tend to obey. I understand that there are other pedestrians out there whose behavior I can use to help gauge the advisability of taking a risk (i.e., if I suddenly see people screaming and jumping back from the curb, there might be a less-safe-than-normal driver headed that way).
Okay. Now, how does this risk connect to my eventual goal, i.e., making it in to work?
In this case it’s very direct: I need to physically cross the street in order to get there. The connection couldn’t be much clearer.
All right. Now: if the risk goes wrong, what kind of flexibility do I have in responding to the situation?
Well…if I’m crossing the street, and suddenly one or more cars come barreling toward me, disobeying speed limits and disregarding stop signs, I can always jump or dive out the way. Do I feel able to actually respond like this if this risk goes wrong? Yes, I do.
All right, then: risk worth taking.
Remember the three part formula for determining whether a risk is worth taking:
1) What do I know or understand about this risk?
2) How does this risk connect to the goal I’m pursuing?
3) How flexible am I willing and able to be to respond if this risk turns out to be not what I was expecting or prepared for?
It’s true that there are no guarantees in life, and risks are absolutely necessary in order to grow. But our “style” of risk-taking can have significant consequences for our self-esteem— not to mention practical consequences for the lives we’re trying to create.
But use your magnificent mind to risk intelligently.
To learn more about intelligent risk-taking in your personal development journey, check out the nonprofit organization SEEK Safely, which seeks to educate the consumers of self-help on how to make their journeys safe and effective.
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