Avoiding Risk is Risky

Black-and-White Risk tree, ready to be climbed.

Black-and-White Risk tree, ready to be climbed.

Though We Don’t Think of It That Way

Mention the word risk in certain crowds and you’ll elicit bombastic responses like: “Without risk, and lots of it, you’ll never be successful. You gotta be at the table to win.” In this context risk is equated simply with “something that you might lose money on.”

It makes sense that we focus on external financial risk. Those results are easy to gauge: Payoff equals rising income. But what about internal risk? What about emotional or psychological fallout from paths not taken? We don’t talk about them as much, but these fallouts play a huge role in our lives. They affect our most important relationships — our friends, families, marriages, our selves.

I started a conversation on this topic yesterday on an app called Anchor. If you hit play below, you can hear stories of these types of risks:

“I’m a healthcare professional. I wanted to strike out on my own rather than work for the man (for lack of a better word). I can see how me being indecisive was harmful to my relationship. At the time, I thought ‘Let’s not take a risk to save my wife from worrying about me as my own boss.' That thinking actually harmed our relationship.”

“I was considering leaving a job I really loved. I'd been with this company for a really long time. I was considering leaving to join a startup. I thought to myself ‘Oh, this is risky. This is really risky.’ A good friend of mine convinced me it was just as risky to stay. He said even if it wasn’t a great job, I was potentially missing out on learning about a new career. About myself.”

Avoiding Risk

Some people think they can avoid risk altogether by just sticking with the status quo. Bad news! This type of non-decision decision can lead to less visible outcomes like anxiety and depression which, in turn, affect everything in our lives, including our relationships. We don’t talk about invisible emotional risks, but they are there with every choice we make. You don’t opt out of emotional risk just because it’s not as outwardly apparent as financial risk.

As an overthinker, I know how tempting it is to try to control outcome by seeing decisions from all sides. Please don’t confuse my invitation to look at the two sides of risk — rational and emotional — as an invitation to overthink.

Drumming up potential positive and negative consequences for big decisions is part of rational, external risk assessment. Often deciders lump emotional components in that assessment at the same time. To truly understand the emotional component of risk is to accept that it’s a bit trickier than that: it probably can’t be understood by thinking too much.

The Role of Intuition in Anticipating Emotional Risk

Risk tree in full color as seen on a wall of our house. Also goes by name of: Change Tree, Intuition Tree, or Luck Tree, depending on the season.

Risk tree in full color as seen on a wall of our house. Also goes by name of: Change Tree, Intuition Tree, or Luck Tree, depending on the season.

Remember your last big decision. Deep down, didn’t you know what you wanted to do? Much has been written about the wisdom of following gut feelings (Steve Jobs: “Intuition is more powerful than intellect”). To sort out the role of emotional risk, you have to take the time to check in with how you’re feeling.

Getting clear-eyed on risk means facing both rational and emotional risks. And let’s complicate this a bit further: there’s also a problem of lack of ultimate control. For overthinkers who want to understand all angles of a problem, this can be a particular challenge.

It’s Not All Up to You

Joining that startup could lead to a huge pay off. Staying at the well-funded enterprise company you’ve been at for years could turn out to be great. Luck will play a role in outcome. The best we can hope for is mapping our own rational and emotional risks with a clear head and heart.

Then we let go.