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The Difference Between Real and Perceived Career Risk – And Why It Matters

By June 3, 2015 No Comments

By Ben Sands – Get additional & free resources here.

At 22, Jim Koch had a newly-minted Harvard degree and no idea what we was going to do with it.

(I suspect that there are a few recent college grads that can relate.)

So Koch did what so many other privileged young adults do when feeling pressured to decide on their future: he bought some more time.  

A lot of times we’re driven and limited by perceived risk. But perceived risk is unrelated to actual risk.

Real risk is not starting a business you are passionate about. Real risk is staying at a job that isn’t fulfilling; wasting your life. – Samuel Adams founder, Jim Koch

In other words, he went to law school.

It didn’t take long however, for Koch to realize his mistake. After just a year, he left and moved to Colorado; taking a job as a guide with the high adventure company, Outward Bound.

“It was a chance,” recalled Koch in an interview with RoadTrip Nation, “the kind of experience that you can only have in your 20s. If I had waited, I would have never done it.”

He nearly four years in Colorado, helping people learn about themselves in the wilderness.  During that time he learned something about himself, too: that he needed more in his life.

Still unsure as to what, exactly, he needed he returned to the East Coast, finished law school, added an MBA and joined the Boston Consulting Group, a prestigious management consulting firm.

After seven years of helping companies set strategy and cut costs, he recognized that his beliefs and values were changing. Just as he had in Colorado, Koch again came to realize that he needed more.

He recalls asking himself, “Is this what I want to do the rest of my life? Is this it?'”

Most importantly, Koch also came to understand and differentiate between perceived risk, and real risk.

“A lot of times we’re driven and limited by perceived risk. But perceived risk is unrelated to actual risk. The real risk was not [leaving Boston Consulting Group]. The real risk was to stay at a job that wasn’t fulfilling; wasting my life…”

In 1984 Koch left BCG and founded Samuel Adams Brewing Company. The rest, as they say, is history.


Often times, we mistaken identify and characterize folks like Jim Koch, and others who live regret-free lives, as “fearless.”

We see their energy, enthusiasm and success and come to the conclusion that they are a “risk-taker” and the quality of their life is their reward.

The fact is, that’s just not true.

Throughout my research, and my own personal experience (see short video below), I’ve found that most people who live “regret-free lives” are, like Koch, highly risk-averse.


It’s just that they have come to understand that there is a difference between “real” career risk and the kind of perceived risk that holds so many of us back from living lives we love.

While they “fearlessly” run at the stuff that holds most people back (e.g. change, challenge, uncertainty, etc), they avoid “real” risk (e.g. sacrificing meaning for comfort, compromising values, etc) at all cost.

In order to create a similar outcome in our own life, we must learn to tell the difference.


What really differentiates Koch, and others, is the clarity they have about what they believe and what they value, and the extent to which their life reflects that.

In other words, the congruence between what they believe and value and the specific personal and professional choices that they make.

“Real” risk, therefore, exists in taking a decision that is inconsistent with your beliefs and values.

The secret, then, of great risk management is self-awareness; a deep understanding of what you believe and what you value, in what order.

Of note, the ability to prioritize beliefs and values is essential, yet often over-looked. There will, inevitably, be times in your life when important beliefs and values are in conflict with one another. To effectively manage risk, you’ll have to be able to choose among them.

For better or worse, such self-awareness requires both time and experience.

Regardless of how smart you are, the process of identifying, testing, refining and prioritizing your values and beliefs doesn’t happen overnight.

As in the case of Jim Koch, it often requires a variety of personal and professional experience to come to an enduring understanding of who you are.

The payoff however, is huge: a set of bulletproof principles with which you can intelligently assess and differentiate real risk, “the signal,” from the noise.

My advice: begin the process as soon as possible.


So many of the smart men and women with whom I speak cite “risk” as the reason for not making change in their personal or professional life.

But, more often than not, they are thinking about risk the wrong way.

More often than not, they are confusing “perceived” risk – the short-term consequence of a decision (e.g. a pay cut, or change in status) – with the “real” risk: a life and purpose never fully realized.

What are you not doing today because you perceive it as too risky?  And how real is that risk?

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Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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