Jumping into the Right Risks
Risk is relative. I learned that lesson on top of New York’s Empire State Building when I was seven years old. While my dad and brother peered over the guardrail to gawk at the busy metropolis below, I stood with my back plastered against the concrete wall, frozen and ashamed. It was the first time I realized that not everyone has the same fears. I also realized that I hate being controlled by fear. "Why is it so easy for them, but so hard for me?" I wondered.
Fear is an invitation to courage. I answered this invitation by becoming a springboard diver. Over a long period of time, I was able to dominate my fear of heights instead of letting it dominate me. For seven years I traveled the world as a member of the US High Diving Team, performing more than 1,500 death-defying dives from heights that scaled to over 100 feet. What I learned in dealing with my fear of heights is that risk is something you simultaneously want and don’t want. Risk tempts you with its rewards, yet repels you with its uncertainties. We know instinctively that the best way to resolve our internal dilemmas is to confront our fears, even if it means doing outlandish things.
Take high diving, for instance. It’s been called a testament to man’s indulgent pursuit of the insignificant. What, after all, did my own high-flying feats prove? That I could withstand a few seconds of plummeting hell? So what? For me, taking a high dive was more than an act of bravado or a flight of fancy. It was an act of liberation; from self-imposed limitations, outdated mental scripts, and most of all, fear.
Like it or not, taking risks is an inevitable and inescapable part of life and business. Whether you’re making a high-stakes investment, launching a new product line, bringing on a business partner or taking some other leap of consequence, sooner or later all entrepreneurs are called upon to take professional high dives.
Two Faces of Risk
Contrary to popular opinion, people cannot be neatly divided into two sweeping categories of risk takers and risk avoiders. In truth, all of us are risk takers and risk avoiders. We simply take or avoid risks in different domains and for different reasons. My late grandmother, for example, could speak her mind to people in authority with little regard as to whether or not they’d be pleased to hear what she had to say. But my tell-it-like-it-is grandmother was a wimp when it came to physical risks. For example, she never mustered up the courage to learn how to drive a car.
Since all of us are both risk takers and risk avoiders, when facing a situation of consequence, the key question becomes, "Is this the right risk for me?" So how do you know if a risk is right or wrong for you? And, if it is right, how do you find the wisdom and courage to go for it when it’s so much easier not to? I suggest using the five "Ps" as a way to gauge whether a risk is "right." When you come to rely on all five criteria as the basis for decision-making, you qualify as a "Right Risk Taker."
The Five Ps of Risking Right
A "right risk" isn’t a function of safety, security or raw odds. It’s a function of compatibility: A risk that’s right for you may be a folly for someone else. If you can check off each of the criteria below, the probability is very high that the risk is right for you. That doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome, but it does increase the likelihood that you won’t regret having pursued the risk, whether or not the risk turns out as planned.
Right risks are risks we care about intensely. Such risks often involve ordeals and suffering. The word "passion" comes from the Latin verb "pati," literally translated as "to suffer." By arousing the strongest, most untamed parts of our nature and stirring up the wild mustangs in our soul, our passion gives us the raw energy and wherewithal to suffer through the anguishing moments that accompany a right risk.
A right risk is taken out of a deep sense of purpose. Purpose serves to harness our passions, giving them direction and focus. Right risks stand for something beyond sensory or ego gratification. Instead of obsessing strictly about gain and loss, the Right Risk Taker asks, "How will this risk make me a more complete person?" or "How will this risk advance my goals?"
Right risks are governed by a set of values that are both essential and virtuous. Risks are, fundamentally, decisions. When facing a decision of consequence, principles form a set of criteria against which the risk can be judged. The principles that Right Risk Takers often use as the basis of their decision-making include justice, independence, freedom, mercy, compassion and responsibility.
Right risks involve the exercise of free choice. Right Risk Takers view the power to choose as a privilege and then honor it as such. By consistently making choices at a conscious level, they are better able to make superior judgment calls at an instinctual level and in fast-moving situations.
A right risk should have a substantial upside. Though well aware of the risk’s upside potential, the Right Risk Taker considers profit only after considering the other four evaluation criteria. Doing so keeps the Right Risk Taker from becoming too hypnotized by the lure of gain. Profit is in the outcome— it comes after everything else is done right.
Unlike run-of-the-mill risk takers, Right Risk Takers know that risktaking has to be about much more than just compensation; it has to be about destination. Instead of asking, "What will this risk get me?," the Right Risk Taker asks, "Where will this risk take me?" By using the five Ps, the Right Risk Taker moves from where they are, to where they want to be. And that’s what progress is all about.