Your Biggest Career Risk? Avoiding Risks. Here’s Why…


Why are so many smart guys and gals so typically averse to taking risks in their career?

Because, unlike smart companies, we don’t aspire to simply manage risk in our lives. Instead, our over-achieving brains push us to eliminate risk completely. This, ironically, is the most risky thing we can do.

The problem is that our effort to control and eliminate near-term risk paradoxically increases our long-term risk exposure. Social scientists call this the “volatility paradox.”

An apt metaphor is the way the US Forest Service prevents catastrophic wildfires by lighting small, controlled fires during good conditions to protect and safeguard the forest from a “big burn” when conditions are incendiary.

In their book “The Startup of You“, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha suggest that today, more than ever, young men and women must introduce what they call “intelligent risk” – i.e. lighting more small fires – in our personal and professional lives.

Hoffman and Casnocha believe that the likelihood of unexpected, rare, high-impact – and potentially devastating – events (a.k.a “black swans”) is only going to increase going forward.

“We’ve become so globally interconnected that a minor disturbance anywhere can create major disruption everywhere,” they write.

So what does this mean for us?

It means that in order to ensure our well-being and career security in the long-term, we must consciously forfeit a bit of that security in the near-term. It means that we must choose to seek out those opportunities that make us just a bit uncomfortable – to lean in, move on and move up – whether we think we are capable of doing so or not.

Put another way, it’s time to light a few fires in our life. Small, controlled blazes that can condition us, protect us, inoculate us from the apathy, indifference and/or ambition-sucking comfort that ultimately poses the greatest threat to our long term happiness and well-being.

Ready to make a risky career move? Here are two ideas to get you started:

1. Reach out to a role model

Put a short list of the people whom you most admire (what I call “Regret-Free Role Models”) and ask to buy them a coffee, beer or simply spend a few minutes on the phone. As a general rule, if you reach out to ten people, you’ll get three responses, one of which will be “yes!”

The goal of this conversation is three-fold:

  • To increase your comfort level reaching out to people whom you don’t know. It’s an ability that will benefit you the rest of your life.
  • To share your admiration for someone whom you admire. It may sound silly, but everyone – even superstars in their field – appreciate hearing that their work is making a difference.
  • To learn what fires they lit when they were your age and what was most important to getting them where they are today.

If the idea of reaching out to a stranger – particularly a stranger that you admire – makes you feel slightly nauseous, use one of the battle-tested email templates that I love.

2. Start capturing your lessons learned

We learn so much, every day, but so often fail to capture it. As Churchill once said, what we fail to remember we are destined to repeat.

By creating a habit of capturing what you are learning each day, you accumulate the “kindling” of your fire – little pieces of data that can help fuel your courage and conviction to make your next move. While this could be done as a personal blog, start first by taking five minutes each day to write in a journal.

If you’re not sure what to write, start by answering these simple questions:

  • What was the best thing that happened to me today? Why did it happen?
  • One thing that I learned today about…
    • Success
    • Failure
    • Love
    • Health
    • What’s most important
  • What will I do to make tomorrow even better than today?

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what kind of fire that you light, only that you light one. The true secret to managing career risk is to take more, calculated, risks throughout your career. Do so and not only will you have the job security you desire, but you will also greatly increase the chances of discovering a career you love.

What have you done to light a fire in your life and/or career?


About the Author

Ben Sands writes at Regret Free Life where he helps smart men and women make great decisions about the stuff they care most about.

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