The Lesson in Every Leap. Reframing Risk as Its Own Reward

As leaders we like to focus on outcomes: I took a chance—and look how well it paid off. We think of risk as the means to an end. No pain, no gain. No risk, no reward. I think this is a missed opportunity. Sure, we know that growth and innovation can only happen when we’re willing to take chances and embrace the unknown. But that doesn’t make it any less scary. For many of us, the mere possibility of a win isn’t enough incentive to take the big leap. That’s why I prefer to frame risk-taking not as a means to an end—but as an end in itself. Sure, it’s scary—but there’s value in scaring yourself this way. Consider the steps involved in evaluating and taking risks. The process—if you take it seriously—is a master class in leadership fundamentals. So, today I want to show you how every risk you take, regardless of the outcome, is so chock full of lessons, it makes risk its own reward.

Lesson One: Listen to Your Inner Voice.

Sometimes opportunity knocks loud and clear. The job you’ve always dreamed of opens up, but it’s in another city, six hundred miles away. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons, of course—but you know the risk is worth considering. It’s when opportunity whispers that the real learning begins. Now the voice is coming from inside the house, and just like when it happens in the movies, it can be a little frightening.

 At first it feels like barely a thought tugging at the corner of your consciousness. Hey, it whispers, what if we tried X, or stopped doing Y altogether? It feels risky—or a little foolish—so you shrug it off. But then the thought returns—this time a little louder. “But what if …”  Those nagging thoughts? They’re your intuition at work behind the scenes, connecting dots, considering possibilities, and bringing valuable information to your attention. Stop. Get quiet. Listen to the words that are coming to you. You’d be surprised how many people find it difficult to reckon with their own thoughts. It really is a skill. The more risks you take, the more you get to practice.

 Lesson Two: Find Your Why.

Just because a thought comes to you doesn’t mean it’s a good one. People who are miserable in their jobs will often have the nagging thought to just quit and let the chips fall where they may. It’s a risk, for sure, but probably not a wise one. A good question to ask yourself when evaluating risk is this: “Am I running toward something? Or running away?” Smart risk takers want to be running toward something. And the only way to know you’re running toward something is to name it. Not just in your head, but out loud. Clearly and with feeling. Just as I urge leaders to motivate others by creating a noble cause—you can articulate a noble cause to motivate yourself. Being able to articulate your “why” is one of the most valuable skills a leader can have, and every risk you assess gives you an opportunity to do just that. 

 Lesson Three: See the Cons Like a Pro

Lots of people (myself included) like to make a list of pros and cons when facing a big decision. I like these lists for two reasons. One, they help me decide whether a risk is a good idea. I’m pretty good at finding the upside—and keeping the pros top of mind is a lot easier when you write them down. Secondly, once I’ve decided to move forward—having thought through both the pros and cons makes me better equipped for any downside of any risk I’m undertaking. There’s always some downside. (Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any risk.) But knowing in advance what bumps may arise, and balancing them with the best-case-scenario is a great practice. I also like the question, “what’s the worst that can happen?” Most people ask it rhetorically. I try to answer it with specifics, because a lot of the time, the worst that can happen isn’t really that bad (or doesn’t come to fruition at all). If the cons feel like they’re outweighing the pros—that’s good information to weigh against your why. Does your noble cause justify the risk? 

Lesson Four: Reframe Your fear.  

In my experience, 90% of the things we fear never happen—and the other 10% don’t happen quite like we thought they would. Sometimes, however, our fears revolve around what is rather than what might be. Thoughts like “I don’t know enough” or “I don’t have the experience” keep us from taking action. When this happens, I’ve found reframing to be extraordinarily powerful—and you can do it with just one word: yet. When you restate “I don’t have the experience to “I don’t have the experience yet”, it transforms a deal-breaker into an opportunity. A reason to stop becomes a reason to continue.

 Lesson Five: Ask for insights

So much of processing risk happens inside our own heads that it’s easy to feel alone. When you start to feel like the only person in the world who’s ever faced such a grueling decision, it’s time to ask for help. In my book Take Charge of You, I call this “consulting your assistant coaches.” Make a list of three to five people you can talk to about what you’re hoping to achieve (or what you’re struggling to decide) and ask them for guidance. I especially like the question “what would you do if you were me?” Not only is asking for insights a great way to get advice—it’s a valuable reminder to yourself that you don’t have to have all the answers, now or ever.

Even when you know there are lessons in store, it’s still never easy to take a big leap. And that’s when it helps me to remember that nothing is without risk. There is risk in staying the same. If change is the only constant, the safety or comfort you’re enjoying now is not guaranteed to last. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed not to last. By not choosing, you’re making a choice that carries risk.

Risk is everywhere. And the more you approach it as an opportunity in and of itself, the more you’ll gain—regardless of whether you win or lose.

What do you think? Is it helpful for you to reframe risk as its own reward? What tools have you found useful as you evaluate risk in your own career?