Fear is a company’s food: It comes in many flavors, but it must be swallowed for the business to live.
The trouble is that many of us learn to be picky eaters from an early age. Although we’re curious about what happens when we put our hand on a hot stove, we don’t attempt it — we know we risk hurting ourselves. While our early risk aversion protects us, it’s not as helpful when leading a business. We have to stomach some risks.
Why do some of us seem to have more appetite for risk than others? Saqib Qureshi, entrepreneur and author of “Reconstructing Strategy: Dancing With the God of Objectivity,” suggests that our self-identities influence our risk tolerance. For example, Qureshi argues that new fathers play out the role of fatherhood by reducing risky behaviors. That identity can intersect with others, such as our race or age, making us even more risk-averse.
Learning to Like Risk
Parents or not, our rational side knows that a bad hire or product failure can’t hurt us. Even if we know we should, signing a contract makes us squeamish.
We can’t change our identity, of course, but we can overcome our aversion to risk in other ways:
1. Distinguish risk from recklessness.
Our body’s alarm circuit is its amygdala, an ancient part of our brain that doesn’t see a difference between calculated risks and recklessness. But if we avoid calling investors the same way we avoid driving off a cliff, we let our amygdala steer us away from activities critical to our success.
Practice putting your forebrain in charge. The market might crash the day after you take out a loan for your office building, but that doesn’t mean it’s reckless. If you worry you’re blinded by fear, ask others to help you make an objective decision. Does your accountant think you’re in a good position to pay back the loan? Does your attorney see any potential snags in the contract?
2. Sign up for public speaking opportunities.
Believe it or not, most of us fear public speaking more than death. That’s why speaking in public is an ideal way to learn to take risks. It may feel like the ultimate risk, but how bad can the actual consequences be? At worst, we get booed off a stage. At best, we win new business or find a mentor.
Best of all, this tactic can reduce not only your perceived risks, but also your actual business risks. Self-development coach Brian Tracy believes your communication skills are responsible for 85 percent of your success. Strong speakers inspire team members, improve their negotiation skills, excel at public relations, and create additional opportunities.
3. Make a request you expect to be rejected.
In a recent TED Talk, Tim Ferriss said that “fear setting” is even more critical to our success than goal setting. According to Ferriss, we need to visualize how to handle life’s difficult choices. That’s not to mention the consequences we might face as a result of making them.
Eventually, you’ll be forced to make a choice that you know won’t go well. Whether you retain a weak employee or let him go, for instance, your company will pay a price. Before you’re stuck with such a decision, practice putting yourself in situations where you’re unlikely to win. You might feel uncomfortable asking a stranger for a favor, for example, but you’ll be grateful for the willpower you gain.
4. Take a trip to a foreign country.
When we travel somewhere new — particularly if it’s somewhere our language isn’t spoken — we have to take risks simply to get around. We have to ask for directions, knowing our helper may judge us or try to take advantage of us. We need to try new foods, realizing our stomach might not tolerate them well. And we have to guess at what signs say, hoping someone will correct us if we’re wrong.
Risk is the currency of both adventure and business. The more we’re willing to spend, the richer our experience will be. Risk is the reason a student from Texas knows what termites taste like. It’s also why Mark Zuckerberg is in charge of the largest social media company on the planet. Those represent different risks, of course, but they both required venturing into new territory.
Risk may be a bitter pill, but it’s one no entrepreneur can refuse. However, we can learn to appreciate risk with continued exposure. That may not happen overnight, but think about it this way: Most of us are glad we learn to stomach bitterness to enjoy the sweetness that comes with it.