Why The Biggest Risk To Your Career Is Actually Not Taking Risks

by Ben Sands

Ever since I was a little boy, I used to look forward to the annual Warren Miller ski movie that would come to our local theater every fall.

After 90 minutes of footage of the world's greatest skiers gracing the slopes of the world's most beautiful mountains, Miller, the grandfather of the ski film industry, would always conclude with this challenge:

So perhaps it's time to quit your job, pack your bags and move to a ski town. If you don't do it this year, 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 exactly 13 years ago, I decided to act on his advice. I quit a very nice web development job in New York City to move 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 couldn't stop crying. She was certain that this was the first step toward 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 is was the best career decision I have made to date.

Risky? Perhaps. But that all depends on how you think about risk.

How much risk have you taken in your career?

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, like me, 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, interests and values?

Simply put, what has been the biggest career "risk" you've taken? What did you do? What were the trade-offs? Would you make the same choice again? How long ago was it you made that 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 you can take in your career

Why are so many 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 riskiest thing we can do.

The problem is 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 (aka “black swans”) is only going to increase going forward. They write:

We’ve become so globally interconnected that a minor disturbance anywhere can create major disruption everywhere.

Igniting 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 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 you do as long as it stretches you, makes you just a little less comfortable, less complacent than you are feeling right now.

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

What are some of the best career decisions you've made that others first thought to be "risky"? What holds you back from taking more risk in your career?

Ben Sands is an author, coach and founder of Regret Free Life, a coaching and consulting company that helps the smartest men and women on the planet make smarter decisions about their career, money, relationships and path forward. For more useful ideas join his free newsletter.