The Risky Six

Six Keys to Shed Fear and Take Smart Professional Risks

by Lei Wang
Ms. Wang is an internationally-recognized adventurer, motivational speaker and author of After the Summit: New Rules for Reaching Your Peak Potential in Your Career and Life. The first Asian woman to complete Explorers Grand Slam (climb the highest peak on each continent and ski to both poles), Lei channels her experiences to convey a message of perseverance and steadfast determination that her audiences can use at work or at home. For more information about Lei Wang, please visit her website.

April 12, 2017 — Like all the knowledge and skills that people learn, fear of failure is also learned. And as you age, you gain more and more mental constraints. Those mental constraints remove creativity and replace it with yet more fear.

Fear is perceived risk; it is learned, and it can be unlearned through practice. The ability to overcome fear—to combat fear—is like a muscle. It can be trained and can get stronger through exercise. Through deliberate practice, you can become courageous, and harness your fear to take informed, intelligent, and potentially lucrative professional risks.

1. Harness Fear’s Positive Power

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion—and thus, an extremely powerful motivational tool. When facing fear, the normal response is fight-or-flight. Flight is to let the fear and the worry take control of your mind. Fight is turning fear into a positive risk management response, forcing you to focus and actively do the best to overcome the present situation.

When you take a leap of faith to confront a new career challenge, instead of worrying “What if I fail?” imagine you have no opportunity to back out.

Instead of letting the fear hold you back, take that first step, and turn fear into a positive strength that compels you to focus and to make your best effort.

2. Act Early, Act Decisively

Rather than waiting until your industry or department becomes dispensable, proactively manage your career growth; learn new skills and think ahead of the curve continually to prevent a career crisis from happening.

Anticipate problems and dangers before they occur. Once danger does arrive, it is often too late to do much in response. Act early and act decisively, because waiting diminishes the chances for success.

Practice facing fear by taking chances. Even if you fail the first time, you should try again. Start with a small task, such as a new project, something you have never done. The more you try, the easier it will become to overcome fear.

3. Separate Probability from Consequences

Many working professionals are afraid of taking risks because the probability of success appears low and the consequences of failure are frightening. When you think about the consequences of a failure, it is important to recognize the difference between the immediate consequences and the ultimate consequences.

If you are afraid of failure and never risk anything, you will risk everything in the end.

Yes, the probability that a new startup will succeed is low, and the immediate consequence could be losing investment money. For any new product launch or new job, there is a chance of failure, and losing your current position. But that is only temporary. Not taking the risk means that the ultimate consequence is failure.

A low probability of success should not be the reason holding you back, as long as the temporary consequences of failure are recoverable. Be more mindful of the ultimate consequence of not taking that chance.

4. Know Your Risk Management Capacity

When approaching a risky situation, some people—often those who have some special talents or experiences—would go all-in and aim to grab the opportunity fast by taking bigger risks. Others take time to build a more solid foundation through each step so they have more control of the risk—at the cost of slower progress.

Which style should you choose? It depends on the situation, your skill, and your risk management capacity. There is no right answer for everyone or every instance.

Consider what the cost and return of taking those risks may be. Think about the alternatives you have and what the risk and return of those alternatives will be. Evaluate what losses you can afford, and consider what the temporary losses and permanent loss might mean. Ask yourself what your options are in the event of a soft loss, a hard loss, or a replaceable loss. Think about how you would recover from these possible losses. Keep in mind ways you could prepare yourself for the best outcome. You have to balance your skill level and risk management ability.

5. Be a Smart Advice-Taker

It can be difficult to measure your own capability against the risk you are considering taking, because it’s hard for people to see themselves completely objectively. But there are mirrors to help you see yourself better. That mirror is the feedback from people around you, such as a mentor, colleagues, or your boss.

Seeking advice is imperative before you take a risk. How do you decide which advice to heed when they conflict with each other? It is important to discern the intention behind each person’s perspective.

Some might be over-protective of you because of emotional attachment, such as friends or family; some may be driven by personal interest. Everyone has a bias; it is important to learn to recognize the value of different feedback. Do not just listen to the feedback that you want to hear. Do not brush aside opposing opinions too easily. Learn to form your own judgment based on those who give you advice.

6. Pushing Too Far vs. Not Pushing Far Enough

The line between pushing too far and not pushing far enough is a fine line, especially when the stakes are high.

In business, not pushing enough causes mediocrity and may eventually lead to a company’s demise. Pushing too far causes burnout and unsustainable growth, or pursuing economic return without regard to the wellbeing of the environment or community.

Managing this delicate balance is a skill that can be learned, like courage and other risk management skills. In order to avoid costly mistakes on either side of the line, you need to learn the skill of heeding the feedback you receive and improve your ability to make sound judgments. Through practice, you can gradually develop objective criteria before real danger arrives, and become better at calculating risks.

Fear of failure is not the reason to avoid taking risks. Of course it’s not smart to jump at every opportunity—you have to calculate and make the best decisions under the circumstances and constraints of your knowledge and vision. Even a calculated risk can prove wrong sometimes, but when you take a chance you have the opportunity to learn and grow. If you are afraid of failure and never risk anything, you will risk everything in the end.