3 Questions to Ask Before You Take a Risk
“I’m climbing!” I screamed.
“Climb on!” my high-ropes course teammates roared in unison.
“I’m climbing!” I said again, looking for even more moral support.
“Climb on!!!” they dutifully responded.
And so I climbed until I reached the one-person standing platform atop the 30-foot tall pole. My team was competing with other teams for a prize that would be determined by who got the most points. And this particular challenge was the one with the most points. If we could manage to pull it off, we would win. The only problem was that we were all afraid of heights, and this exercise required us to climb on top of a tall pole and then jump off to pluck a brass ring that was a daunting six feet away.
Being that high up in the sky, I should have felt like I was on top of the world, but instead, I felt like the world was on top of me. I started to think of all the stupid decisions I had made in life, and they are many. I binge watch silly TV shows. I pay for memberships I never use. I buy when I should sell; I sell when I should buy. But standing on a tiny slab on top of a 30-foot pole and jumping off of it to reach for a useless ring tops them all. Who talked me into this? I was fearful, to be sure, but so were my teammates. I offered to go first so that I could encourage them all.
A mentor once told me that the reason we don’t dare more, that we don’t take risks, is because we overestimate the likelihood that something will go wrong. We demean our ability to handle the fall-out from the risk, while we fail to account for the cost of inaction. That’s heavy, so let’s unpack this one piece at a time.
We don’t take risks because we magnify the chances that something will go wrong.
In retrospect, I had no reason to be fearful. Before the start of the exercise, I had been harnessed with ropes securely fastened to my waist, and there were also other safety measures to make sure no one would be injured. The training facility had a stellar safety record, which is why my safety-conscious company chose them. The man facilitating the exercise told us his six-year-old daughter was there the prior week and did well! In my head, I knew that if I slipped or fell, I was unlikely to be gravely harmed. But that still didn’t stop me from freaking out when I came face-to-face with the real deal. I had magnified the chances that something would go wrong.
We belittle our ability to handle the consequences of the risk.
The most probable consequence of jumping off a pole while being securely harnessed was that I would fail to get the ring. But even in that case, my team still stood a chance of winning because my teammates might succeed where I didn’t. Moreover, having been through it, I could then pass on valuable lessons to them to increase their confidence and likelihood of success. So even my failure, if I did fail, could end up making my whole team successful. In short, my ability to handle the consequences was better than I gave myself credit for.
Lastly, we discount or deny the cost of inaction.
I was already on top of the pole! I could either jump or climb down. If I did not jump, I most certainly lost; if I did jump, I faced the possibility of winning. Inaction, delaying, and procrastination are all actions in themselves. And actions have consequences. Indecision is a decision—one has decided not to decide! Standing on top of the pole, I decided that inaction was a risk I wouldn’t take, so I took a deep breath in, closed my eyes, spread my arms for balance, and counted to three while saying to myself…1) I will not over-estimate the chances of things going wrong; 2) I will not underestimate my ability to handle the consequences of the risk; and 3) I will not deny there is a cost to not acting.
So I jumped! And grabbed the priceless ring! My success encouraged my teammates, and they all were able to repeat what I did, and we went on to win the competition. The whole program was fun; nothing was actually won except bragging rights. But I kept the ring with me for a long while after the event to remind myself that I should dare more and take a leap of faith.
Your fears are a prison that confine you within a limited range of actions. This blog is committed to help you dream more and fear less. When you are next afraid of risk taking, ask yourself: Am I artificially increasing the probability that something will go wrong? Am I demeaning my ability to handle the fallout? Am I including the cost of keeping the status quo? Answer truthfully. Seek feedback on each of these questions. Then make the call. You will find moving forward ten times sweeter than looking back. I challenge you to take that leap of faith. Take a risk: the odds are better than you think.