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The Biggest Risk To Your Career? You May Be Surprised…

By September 10, 2015 No Comments

Ever since I was a little boy, I used to look forward to the annual “Warren Miller” ski movie.

At the end of each movie (awe-inspiring footage of world’s greatest skiers gracing the slopes of the world’s most beautiful mountains) Miller, a ski film industry legend and the film’s narrator, would always conclude with this challenge:

“Perhaps it’s time to quit your job, pack your bags and move to a ski town? If you don’t, you’ll just be one year older when you do…”

At some point in my young life, the seed Miller planted started to germinate and then, one day, I decided to act on his advice. I quit my comfortable web development job in New York City and moved to Aspen, Colorado, just in time for ski instructor tryouts.

When I announced the move to my friends and family, the reaction was consistent: You’re crazy! Why would you take such a risk?

The worst reaction, though, came from my mom: she wouldn’t stop crying.

She couldn’t understand why I would willingly step off what appeared to be so safe, secure and prosperous career path in order to teach skiing.

She was certain that this was the first step towards a life of poverty and pain. (Fortunately my dad was there to take the phone and give her some time to recover).

Today, reflecting back on that decision, both Mom and I can say with confidence that was the best career decision I ever made.

Three Lessons Learned By Taking The Leap

My experience of leaving the safety and security of my uninspiring desk job taught me many things, but three ideas stand out:

  1. There is a direct correlation between the quality of your life and the amount of risk you can comfortably tolerate. In Colorado learned how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. I learned not to run from my insecurity but, instead, lean into it, and work intentionally to resolve it. In our ever-changing and increasingly uncertain world, there may be no more valuable capacity.
  2. Sales is a superpower. Most people think sales is cold-calling; what I realized in Aspen is that the most successful people in the world were not simply “smart,” but they could communicate in a way that moved others. Sales is influence. Sales is leadership.
  3. It’s hard to know what’s true, until you do. Most people are surprised that I ever left Aspen (“uh, why would you leave paradise?”). What I discovered however, is that while many of my preconceived notions about what life in the mountains were true, some were not. It was only after living there, and having that experience, that I was able to confidently say that I wanted to move back to the city.

So was the decision to move to the mountains “risky?” Perhaps. In retrospect however, adding a little risk to my professional life proved to be the least-risky decision I could ever make…

How about you?

A Personal Career-Risk Assessment

How much “risk” have you taken thus far in your professional life?

Have you ever pushed the “reset” button after starting down a career path that seemed to be taking you somewhere you didn’t want to go?

Have you ever pursued a “dream” job even when the long-term career prospects seemed unclear?

Have you ever said “no” to a higher-paying job in favor of a position that seemed to align better with your skills, interest and values?

What risks have you taken? What were the trade-offs? Would you make the same choice(s) again?

And finally, how long ago was it that you made such a decision?

For the great majority of the men and women with whom I’ve worked, the answer is the same: too long.

The Only “Real” Risk To Your Career

Why are so many really smart guys and gals so averse to career risk-taking?

Because, unlike smart companies, we don’t aspire to simply manage risk in our lives…no, our over-achieving-knucklehead-instincts push us to eliminate risk completely.

This, ironically, is the most risky thing we can do.

The problem is that our effort to control and eliminate near-term risk paradoxically increases our long-term risk exposure.

Social scientists call this the “volatility paradox.”

An apt metaphor is the way the US Forest Service prevents catastrophic wildfires by lighting small, controlled fires during good conditions to protect and safeguard the forest from a “big burn” when conditions are incendiary.

In their book, “The Startup of You” LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha suggest that today, more than ever, young men and women must introduce what they call “intelligent risk” – i.e. lighting more small fires – in our personal and professional lives.

Hoffman and Casnocha believe that the likelihood of unexpected, rare, high-impact – and potentially devastating – events (a.k.a “black swans”) is only going to increase going forward.

“We’ve become so globally interconnected that a minor disturbance anywhere can create major disruption everywhere,” they write.

Ignite Your Career

So what does this mean for you and me?

It means that in order to ensure our well-being and security in the long-term, we must consciously abdicate a bit of that security in the near-term.

It means that we must choose to seek out those opportunities that make us just a bit uncomfortable – to lean in, move on and move up – whether we think we are capable of doing so, or not.

Put another way, it’s time to light a few fires in our life.

Small, controlled blazes that can condition us, protect us, inoculate us from the apathy, indifference and ambition-sucking comfort that ultimately poses the greatest threat to our long term happiness and well-being.

So, here’s the challenge: light a fire today.

Invest in a new skill, take on a new opportunity, start working on your side business or maybe move to the mountains…Ultimately it doesn’t matter what, exactly, you do as long as it stretches you, makes you just a little less comfortable, a little less complacent than you are feeling right now.

Lean in, move on, move up…just get going.

Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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