Last Updated: Apr 20, 2015
“Risk” is a word of extremes. So often you hear about people risking their health, their money, even their lives. But risk taking—though a departure from the norm—doesn’t have to be all bungee jumps and gambles. Taking risks in life can lead to great rewards, and the process of simply breaking out of one’s comfort zone can lead to immense personal growth. And to be risk averse . . . well, that might be the riskiest thing of all.
Ricky Cohen, businessman and author of Risk to Succeed: Essential Lessons for Discovering Your Unique Talents & Finding Success, has spent 30 years working with college students and recent graduates, helping them achieve their goals. He, not so surprisingly, is the first person to advocate taking thoughtful personal and professional risks. “Risk taking is about a perpetual state of being, which is beyond the norm, which demands more, which works a little harder,” he says. “It relates to everything we do.”
In order to build success, to stand out in the everyday environment, a person must reach beyond and try new things, Cohen says. During a recession or otherwise less-than-awesome job search environment, that imperative is greater than ever. Swarms of intelligent, accomplished people vie for the same pool of jobs, many going without them, because they can’t differentiate themselves from their peers. Taking a risk can be a means to that end, whether it’s just reaching out to new people or submitting an unconventional résumé.
At the end of the day, taking risks can empower people to be bold enough to go after their dreams. Ask yourself, “if I could do anything at all, if I could achieve anything I wanted with this, what would that be?” Cohen advises. “We recommend that a young adult should answer that question with his or her gut or heart, intuitive sense, and just for the moment, while answering that question, the individual should push reality and logic and reason aside just for a moment and should focus on that seemingly unreasonable possibility.”
Some people lack courage to envision and articulate their goals, Cohen says. But the person who simply completes this small exercise, determining a serious and ambitious goal, not only gives him or herself direction but has already set him or herself apart from of the masses. Having an ambitious goal is an advantage, and determining one is the first step, Cohen says. “The next step is to put together a reality-based plan to get there.”
Risk taking can’t exist on its own; that blind ambition needs to be paired with drive and determination. Sure, it means leading a more challenging life, being a little uncomfortable, being a little afraid, but these are the “symptoms of risk,” Cohen says. He encourages college students and grads to be courageous in their goals, but reminds them that those plans must be “absolutely steeped in practical, day-to-day efforts,” with steps toward achieving success as far as one can envision.
Few other options are so essential to building success today, he says, as patterns of the past (like following a traditional career path or advancement ladder) don’t work quite so well anymore. “We can’t simply complete our degrees on a graduate level and assume the marketplace will make it work.”
As for how to take risks without fully jumping into a void of uncertainty, Cohen has a simple answer: five hours a week. He actually recommends taking a “safe job . . . because we have bills to pay, we have day to day responsibilities that we have to shoulder,” he says. “Stick with the job, but make sure that there are at least five hours a week dedicated to this seemingly unrealistic goal and practical steps to get there.”
Of course, just thinking about that goal isn’t enough. Risk taking takes planning too. How do you break through and get your name out there? It starts with developing the technical skills, Cohen says, whether through school or experiential learning or both, and then developing concrete steps, like e-mailing people in the field, reading and researching until you become an expert, honing your skills by practice, going above and beyond. “It’s in everything,” he says. “It’s in constantly thinking about ‘Is there another possibility here? Should I take that extra effort? Should I ask this person that extra question? Should I ask Person A to introduce me to Person B? Should I work harder at understanding the network of people I’m about to meet? Should I be reading more and pushing myself further to understand the industry I’m attempting to go into?”
At the end of the day, if you’re too comfortable, operating on autopilot, you’re flying toward nothing in particular. “Risk taking is an overall mindset, and if it’s part of a person’s world-view and thought process, it enriches every facet of life,” Cohen says. “It means that life is a little less comfortable than it might be otherwise, but it absolutely means that the possibilities are infinitely greater.”