# 597 Innovative Leader
Volume 13, Number 3 March 2004
Right Risk: Lessons From the Edge
by Bill Treasurer
founder of Giant Leap Consulting (www.right-risk.com),
is author of Right Risk: 10 Powerful Principles for Taking Giant
Leaps with Your Life (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2003)
Fear 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 miniature metropolis below, I stood
there, frozen and ashamed, with my back plastered against the
concrete wall. I was amazed and envious. “Why is it so
easy for them,” I wondered, “but so hard for me?”
You see, I’m
afraid of heights—a fear that wouldn’t be all that unusual if it
weren’t for the fact that I’m a former professional high diver.
Yep. For seven life-changing years, I traveled throughout North
America and Europe with the U.S. High Diving Team, taking some
1,500 death-defying leaps into waters a hundred feet below.
likely, most of the risks you’re confronted with are solutions
to your own internal dilemmas, too. Risk is something you want
and don’t want, all at the same time. It tempts you with its
rewards, yet repels you with its uncertainties.
diving, for instance. It’s been called a testament to man’s
indulgent pursuit of the insignificant. After all, what did my
own high-flying feats prove? That I could withstand two and a
half seconds of plummeting hell? So what? The answer lies in my
confrontation with my limitations and fears. For me, taking a
high dive was more than an act of bravado or a flight of fancy.
It was an act of liberation.
Like it or not,
taking risks is an inevitable and inescapable part of
life. Whether you’re grappling with getting married, starting a
business, making a high-stakes investment, or taking some other
life or career leap of consequence, you’ll ultimately confront
your own personal high dive.
Taking and Avoiding Risks
When it comes
to risk-taking, it’s tempting to sort people into two
simplistic, sweeping categories—those who do and those who
don’t. This absolutist mindset presupposes that if you take
risks in one part of your life, you’ll take them in all other
parts of your life.
assumption, however, and it falls apart. For instance, my late
grandmother spoke her mind, asserting the boldest of opinions,
but never mustered up the courage to learn how to drive.
Meanwhile, a buddy of mine—a tough-minded cop—“runs-and-guns” on
the streets of Newark, but can barely tell his wife he loves her
because it makes him feel all squishy inside.
The reality is,
we’re all risk-takers and risk-avoiders. We simply take
or avoid risks in different domains, for different reasons. And
while the experience of struggling with a risk decision is
universal, the process of deciding which risks to take and which
to avoid is highly personal. We’re left to answer for ourselves
a basic, yet profound, risk-discerning question: Is this the
right risk for me?
A risk that is right for you may seem absurdly dangerous to
others, making it difficult to win their support. When I left a
secure, high-paying consulting job to start my own business, my
father was astounded. “Are you crazy?” he screamed. “Why in
the hell would you throw away such a good thing?”
Yet every risk can be split in two—the risk of action
and the risk of inaction. If a risk is right, the real
harm comes in letting the opportunity pass by. Though my dad
begged to differ, it was far more dangerous for me to stay in a
comfortable yet unchallenging position than to strike out on my
If a risk is right for you, don’t let reason get in the way
of passion. A “right risk” isn’t a function of safety or
security. It’s a function of compatibility. A risk that’s
right for you may be a folly for someone else. And a risk
that’s right for someone else may be entirely wrong for you.
So, how do you know if a risk is right for you? And, if it is
right, how do you find the wisdom and the courage to go for it
when it’s so much easier not to? With the right-risk
model, I offer 10 fundamental, guiding principles—a strong
platform for risking right:
Find your golden silence.
Hush the external and internal noise to hear your
intuitive, innermost voice. Disconnect from your technological
tethers. Seek solitude and silence in big and small ways—from
retreating to a quiet, sacred place once a year to turning off
the radio on your commute to work.
Give up the
“static quo” of your comfort zone. Do something. Break a risk
down into smaller, safer steps. Hire a coach. Or create a
little desperation with a sink-or-swim approach. Make risk the
vehicle that moves you from where you are to where you want to
Write your risk scripts.
Put an end to
the negative self-talk. Whether it’s “I am not good enough,”
unlovable,” or some other outdated line, revise your old,
limiting scripts with a new, personal mantra. Then “walk the
talk” by seeking out risks that affirm your future, not your
Turn on the pressure.
Push yourself a
little—or a lot. And ask family, friends, and colleagues to
nudge you, too. Create the kind of “purposeful anxiety” that
gives you little choice but to take the risk.
Put yourself on the line.
“un-safe.” Be willing to sacrifice your image and your security
to do what you believe is right. Make taking the risk more
important than playing it safe. And put some skin in the game
with a personal investment.
Make fear work for you.
Work your fear. Let it sharpen your focus. Arouse your
spirit. And fuel your ability to take and even enjoy the risk.
Find the right balance of fear—more than too little and less
than too much—and transform your fear into action.
Have the courage to be courageous.
Exercise your courage, not your cowardice, by acting in the
face of fear. Know that courage is full of
fear—knee-knocking, teeth-chattering fear—but insists you take
the risk anyway.
Be perfectly imperfect.
Accept the trial and the error. Embrace the messiness
and the mistakes. And surrender to the loss of control that
goes with the risk-taking territory.
Be willing to disappoint or even disobey others. Say “yes”
to yourself, even when it means saying “no” to those who matter
most to you. Make personal fidelity more important than
pleasing others. And misbehave. It’s worth the risk.
Get personal by revealing yourself to others. Be
honest. Be vulnerable. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Take the risk of sharing your true feelings to build deep,