I have often written about the extraordinary opportunities available to all of us. We live at an extraordinary time, a time of fantastic and rapid change, in the best country in world. I believe that the opportunities to achieve whatever one wants to achieve in today’s America are limitless.
Yet, I know a lot of people that look at the same things I do and simply don’t see it the same. They see scarcity where I see abundant opportunity. It has taken me a while to figure out why but I believe I now understand. There are three fierce guard dogs at the gates of opportunity, and it turns out that most people see the snarling beasts, they miss seeing the gates, let alone the rainbow and waterfalls in the garden on the other side.
The guard dogs are risk, sacrifice, and faith. One or more of these prevent many from jumping on thousands of golden opportunities. Today I’ll spend a few minutes discussing the first one — risk.
Young adults have a great advantage over most of the working population. If they grew up in an optimistic home, they believe they can conquer the world, they have little if anything to lose, they don’t yet listen to (or at least adhere to) the often faulty, limited “wisdom” of their elders, and they have had few disheartening experiences. There is good reason most tech start-ups are fueled by young adults.
As people get older, they tend to take less and less risk. This risk aversion invades most of the facets of a person’s life: financial, emotional, professional, psychological, personal, you name it. Yet the core truth found in the well-known “nothing ventured, nothing gained” idiom rules nearly every facet of life.
By the time people hit their 40’s, most don’t want to take any chances. This is a terrible mistake that shackles one’s life. Without accepting risk, all you can expect is a lousy return following the path of the risk-free herd. When you embrace good risks, you expand your possibilities and your life.
Overcoming the fear of risk is possible and comes from learning and understanding probability better than the average person. Risk is simply half of the equation: once a person learns to evaluate risk clearly, in relation to probable return, she can start making educated decisions regarding the worthiness of any endeavor. Fierce guard dogs start to look much more lovable.
It is easiest to understand risk vs. return in simple betting. If someone offered you 3:1 odds on the flip of a quarter, it becomes a good bet – in other words a risk worth taking, because the quarter flip will win 50/50 over time. On a dollar bet, you would get paid $3 the 50% of the time that you win, but lose only $1 the 50% of the time you would lose.
The same is true in life. If you invest $1,000 in a growing, successful company that has a current P/E ratio of 10, a historical low for the stock, because of a short-term sell-off, while all its close competitors have P/E’s of 25 – barring any skeletons in the closet, you generally have taken a good bet – odds are much better that your stock will appreciate to $2,500 rather than falling to $500 in the future. You can further mitigate the risk by investing $1,000 in 10 companies in similar situations – even if you are wrong on 5 of 10 — and 3 of them get halved while 2 tread water and stay at the price paid — if the other five do move up to their historical P/E, your final tally would be $16,000 on a $10,000 in investments, or a 60% return. If you leave that $10,000 in a money market account at Bank of America, you will earn less than $5 per year in this crazy “interest-free” financial climate.
Yet many people never overcome the fear of risk. My suggestion is start small and gain momentum gradually. A big misconception is that those who take risks are fearless. Not true. People that take prudent risks, after weighing the probable rewards, are courageous and smart.
I really like John Wayne’s definition of courage….the Duke said “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.”
It is incredibly important that a person learns to embrace prudent calculated risk during his entire life, learning from experiences as he grows older. There are always risks worth taking, and when you are 40, 50, or 60, you have a much broader base of experience, connections, and resources than when you were but 22. The idea is not to put more than you can afford to lose in any one investment or idea.
My discussion took a financial turn because it is easy to illustrate with numbers, but taking prudent risks is just as vital on your emotional, professional, personal, and psychological facets of life. If you come up with a great idea that is worthy, take the risk and land a meeting with your CEO. Pitch it! You might just make Executive VP after all. Go to that job interview. Ask that girl out. Go ahead and volunteer when they ask. Speak up at the community meeting. Try helping out at the local soup kitchen or Meals-on-Wheels or Big Brothers Big Sisters — seriously! Start that little business on the side and stick to the project to the finish line. Always remember that it helps to fail spectacularly from time to time in order to become extraordinary in the end.
The great Wayne Gretzky is right when he says “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Michael Jordan put it this way: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Take more risks to be all you can be!
I.M. Optimism Man