What’s Your Risk Tolerance?

I grew up in a bit of a risk-adverse home. One parent was an engineer who had been with the same company since graduating school.  The other was an administrative assistant who worked for the same school for many years.  Both believed you find a job, stay with that job, try not to rock the boat, and retire. I thought this was the way it was done. That is, until I graduated college and started out on my own.

When I graduated from college, my intention was to go into HR. I interned and then went to work for a staffing agency. After six months, I knew the staffing agency life wasn’t for me. So, I took a contract job at a tech company we staffed for. Four months later, that contracted ended and went to another company. My dad pulled me aside one day and said after three jobs, I had to stay put. No one would ever want me if taking more than that. Don’t take the risk!

Then, I wanted to bike in a race with a friend. We signed up. I pulled my old Cannondale out of storage, dusted it off and hit the road. A family member caught wind of my race and said don’t do it! I could crash or even get hit by a car. Play it safe! Don’t take the risk.

Since those conversations, I’ve taken several risks in my career and in my personal life. My resume has a wealth of experiences from consulting across a variety of industries. My personal resume has a number of ultra-endurance races. I’ve written articles that were broadly published and scrutinized. I’ve given presentations to different groups, and admittedly bombed a couple. Each one of these required me taking a risk. Whether putting my livelihood, physical well-being, or reputation at risk, each was calculated and never done on a whim.

Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, and I’m not here to change that. As with everything, personal risk tolerances can change with experience. What I hope is my approach will get you to see risk a little different.

There are four criteria I have when it comes to taking risks in my life. These criteria are for those “bigger” pursuits (i.e. new job, asking for a promotion, publishing a book, big race, etc). Everyone’s definition of risk can be different, so you’ll need to understand what a “bigger” risk is for you.

Throttling up to V1 – Taking Small Steps to Taking Off for Big Things. Ever watch a YouTube video of airline pilots taking off? Or, have you been behind the flight controls yourself? There is a critical point during the take off process called V1. V1 is the max speed you can safely reject the takeoff. It is also the minimum speed you can take off following an engine failure. But once you go past V1, the only option you have is to “rotate”, and take off.

Here’s the thing about V1; there are a lot of small steps that must be taken before you hit that speed. Plane prepped. Checklists followed. Run-ups on the engines done. Lots of throttle to get you moving down the runway before V1 speed is achieved. You don’t just get in and go. There are opportunities to abort early on. If you’re going to ask if I’m a pilot, the answer is no. I have flown in a few single-engine aircraft and helped with the checklists and have taken off a few times.

When taking a risk in your career or personal life, think of it like taking off in a plane. Start by doing little things. Want a new job? Update your resume. Share it with a friend. Talk to the friend. Talk to the friend’s boss. Interview. Get an offer. Accept. Quit old; start new. Even early on during those initial, smaller steps, you could abort. But as things continue, momentum builds until you hit V1. Evaluate your risks by starting small and throttling up as success is seen.

If I Need a Plan B, My Plan A Probably Sucked. In 2009, I signed an employment agreement with a consulting company. I had never officially consulted before (I was brought in to help other depts. from time to time). After giving my two week notice, a co-worker heard I was leaving. We talked and he told me I probably wouldn’t make it in the consulting world and wanted to know what my Plan B was.

At first, I thought the guy was an asshole. I may have even called him that. But in hindsight years later (yeah, it’s stuck with me), his comment made sense. When you’re looking at a risk and making a plan, is that plan thorough enough given the information you have, and can you pivot when the inevitable punch in the face happens? If I need to make a Plan B before I even start Plan A, Plan A wasn’t solid enough. Take the time to understand the risk, make a plan to conquer understanding you don’t have all the information now, and get ready to pivot when necessary.

Is This a TED Talk-Worthy Story, Even if the Outcome Isn’t What I Want? I like TED Talks. They’re short, informative, and concrete. They can be inspirational, emotional, and thought provoking. I listen to TED podcasts and watch them frequently.

If I’m taking a risk, I ask myself; could I give a TED Talk on this? Is this story worth standing in front of others and telling it, even if it doesn’t go the way I imagined? If yes, it’s probably worth pursuing. If no, is it really important to me?

Every risk we take has a story and a purpose behind it. Ask yourself; is this risk worth explaining why I took it in the first place? If it’s worthy of presenting it in a TED Talk format, you can also talk about it with family, friends, and peers. Chances are you won’t give a TED Talk about the risk you undertook, but starting there makes the conversation with a smaller group easier.

Could I Die Despite All My Preparation? This is a legit question I ask myself! Could I die doing this? Or, could I have lasting, life-altering injuries?

Let me explain. I love ultra running and ultra cycling. These events span multiple hours, even up to a full day (I haven’t done a 24+ hour event…yet). But during these events, there are risks involved ranging from cliffs to cars, wildlife to weather, and lots of risks in between. Yes, I’ve nearly mountain biked off a cliff at dusk and have run in the open during a lightning storm. Your day can end badly!

Try as hard as we do to train and prepare for events such as these, you can’t mitigate all risks. Is the risk worth the reward? Do I want to risk a rattlesnake bite in the Badlands of South Dakota or come across a bear on the north shore of Lake Superior? So far, yes I have. Before I hit the “Submit Payment” button to commit, though, I do ask myself if I could die.

Everyone’s risk tolerance will be different. It may start low and go higher over time. Others start high and stay high, or start low and stay low. It’s up to you to define what level of risk you’re comfortable with. I suggest having criteria to help. If you don’t have any, take mine! Or, create your own. But in the end, good luck with all risks you take on.

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