Risk: friend or foe?

The most engrossing books/tv/movies have characters that take risks.  From Harry Potter to the Gilmore Girls to Mission Impossible to Atlas Shrugged to Laurel and Hardy to almost any biography (and beyond), characters don’t play it safe when they have choices*.  Their risk analyses are rarely intelligent, they aren’t always well-thought out, they don’t always end well and the situations are often happenstance. It is the uncertainty and consequences of these risks that make their stories so enticing.

We spend our free time engrossed in the stories of people who take risks and make bad decisions, often idolizing their off-kilter lives.  But, at our day jobs, we are taught to perform risk analyses and mitigate risk, to calculate the answer before actually acting.  This is the generally-accepted, most efficient way to do anything, and without it, investors won’t fund companies and, it seems, we won’t have products to sell.  We won’t sell Starbucks cappuccinos if they aren’t made according to the plan and rocket ships won’t launch without careful measurement.  Reading a story about someone who can’t hold a steady relationship or job is entertaining, but in our real lives, not being able to hold onto partners or build a career is a ‘flaw’.  Even the very origin of the word ‘risk’ is negative: mid 17th cent.: from French risque (noun), risquer (verb), from Italian risco ‘danger’ andrischiare ‘run into danger.’ (thanks, Google).

There is an apparent disconnect between our romanticism and fascination with the extraordinary and everyday life when we are told that we must minimize the risk.  Our fascination seems independent of the characters’ ability to weigh their options reasonably and forge the outcomes they desire.  Do we admire those who are willing to take risks because they are few and far between?  Or is it our nature to take risks but we choose not to because we evaluate situations and keep the odds of failure low?

Interestingly, it seems that Peter Drucker says, alternatively, that the origin of the word risk in arabic means “eating one’s daily bread” and are required in life and business.  He is also a proponent of logically facing risks.  It’s cliche that the greater the risk, the greater the opportunity for success.  Is the converse always true: the lower the risk, the less meaningful the success?  Low risk, high reward situations are as elusive as El Dorado.  It is key to avoid the particularly-dangerous high risk, low reward situations, I question whether there is ever a time to choose low risk, low reward over high risk, high reward.

I believe we don’t want to truly mitigate the risks we take on, but rather logically evaluate risky options, then focus our risk acceptance on the highest reward outcome (letting the low reward situations lay by the wayside).  After writing this, I found out that Mr. Drucker seems to support this  – and Mr. Drucker definitely knows what he’s talking about.

Perhaps an inability to set a goal could be re-phrased: I set up to take risks only when the outcome is great enough to be worth the investment – and often my recognition of ‘great enough’ may be too harsh, too slow, too on-the-spot or just plain old ineffective.  But, without intentional risks I don’t push myself to grow, and I’m a terribly boring movie character.


*One exception to this rule is the books where the characters cannot bring themselves to take risks and the author points out the devastation of playing it safe (ie, RevolutionaryRoad).


The Scarlett method

I found myself assembling a shelf of ‘old friends’ when I recently unpacked our book collection onto our new shelves**.

On my shelf of old friends, I found myself placing the books that I can’t put down when I read them, and I can read them over and over again.  I don’t only read these books, but  they are there if I need motivating, relaxing or just entertainment.  One of these books is, I am almost afraid to admit, Gone with the Wind.  Yes, yes, it’s intriguing and exciting and tragic and a top ten love story of all time, but really…I’m married so who needs Rhett Butler ;)?  This book is about “people who have gumption and people who do not,” in the words of Margaret Mitchell herself.  Scarlett O’Hara may not be kind or selfless, but she definitely has gumption (and good looks).  Before we go too far, I acknowledge that we may not approve of her methods or even her goals as the book goes on – but this post is about attaining goals, not making them, so the reader is fully responsible for any sketchy goal setting!

Throughout the book it is clear that Scarlett is undeniably going to finish what she plans to do.  She is able to effectively set goals and follow through.  Despite this, when she is about to undertake another act of self-preservation, she feels guilt that lingers from her antebellum Southern upbringing.  When she realizes she has no alternative that still allows for survival in her war-torn world, she exclaims, “Oh, I’ll think of that later!” to put her guilt aside until she has attained her goal. 

Now, bear with me, the next book I have chosen to read is Espresso Lessons by Arno Ilgner (that was on the ‘outdoor adventure’ shelf).  Arno Ilgner is the founder of the Warrior’s Way, a method to improve the psychology of rock climbers to enable them (us?) to evaluate and tackle challenges effectively.  The reason I have this particular book is because I took a Warrior’s Way clinic last year.  While the class occurred at our local Planet Granite and focused on rocks, the underlying principle is equally and heavily applicable outside of the rock gym: the most effective actions, thoughts or plans are those on which we have consciously and actively focused our full attention.  Attention is the key word.  If you are climbing, climb.  If you are resting, only rest.  This is the time to plan.  Once you start moving again, just keep moving how your body flows without letting your thought distract you.  In other words, if you have fear of falling, think of it later and focus on falling itself now.

I can’t seem to get over how striking it is that these books, a century apart and worlds different in context, lead to the same place.  In Scarlett’s case, her goals are survival-based and distraction is her guilt.  In the Warrior’s Way, the goals are self-improvement/achievement and the distraction is fear.  In my case, I’m still not sure on the goal and perhaps the distraction is the internet…  To attain the goal, invest fully in moving toward it or invest completely in devising the plan.  If the movement doesn’t match the plan completely, it’s ok – just get to a stopping point to reassess honestly.  And perhaps, when we’re not sure where to put our inevitable fear or guilt or anger or other distraction and we aren’t able to put it in the past, the indefinite future is just as good. 

**A note on the bookshelves: since one of our old Ikea shelves literally collapsed under the weight of our library,

2013-11-11 21.03.53

we decided to upgrade by buying 3 of the Klassik bookshelf from Scandinavian Designs.  I guess they are actually discontinuing this bookshelf, which is a bummer since it’s not terribly expensive and it’s much more structurally sound than the Ikea bookshelf since the shelves are supported by a bar rather than little tabs.  I guess these Scandinavians like to read more than the Scandinavians who work at Ikea…


(There’s gotta be a rule in blogging about starting with parentheticals, but anybody else ever see soccer on the Spanish station?)

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  I was just using this blog as a place to capture notes and learnings, but the problem is that I don’t really have a goal for it so it wasn’t clear what to record here & I gave up.  In fact, the bigger issue in life seems to be that I don’t really have a goal at all.  And without a goal, I don’t have much direction.  Lack of direction leads to perusing the internet in free time, which is probably one of the biggest wastes of time yet.  It was my realization of the fact that I gravitate toward the internet, not the new year that tipped this off.

I’ve come remarkably far in life without actually being able to set goals, but the truth is that I’m just not a natural goal setter.  It was pretty easy in school – the goal was always graduate (and with honors if possible).  Sub-goals were to pass each individual class, complete homework, not fail exam, etc.  But, I’m more convinced than ever that really happy, successful people not only set goals, but work hard and creatively to achieve them.  And, the few times I’ve succeeded at this I’ve been happy:

  1. I ran a half-marathon (2 actually), which for the kid whose GPA was punished by gym class was huge.
  2. I took singing lessons to learn to sing on key (but promptly stopped keeping up with music after 1.5 years).

So, now I’m out of school.  I’m married to a very special guy, have a house (which is fun to decorate), have a loving and brilliant (although emotional) dog, have a job at a silicon valley company trying to save the world, I’m fortunate to be a significant player in my company role and I have a pretty comfortable living situation.  Really, I’m very fortunate that I have fulfilled needs of life that many people seek their whole lives and I certainly don’t clamor for hardships.  I’d like to take advantage of my situation and give something back by achieving more.  In fact, according to our friend Maslow, I actually NEED to do this.

Next question: do I want this goal to apply to my career?  Or do I want it to apply to only my personal life?  I can make multiple goals, or one broad goal to cover both.

Let’s look at types of goals.  First, the worst kind of goals are vague goals (like get more involved in management) that tend to be totally unfulfilling, so none of these.  There are negative goals (don’t log into facebook ever again), but these are totally unachievable without deadline so no celebration either.  Better goals are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.  Since I think I’m fundamentally a little lazy, I think relevancy will be my most important aspect to define – without it my motivation will languish and I’m guaranteed failure.  This is why the third half marathon I signed up for didn’t happen – I no longer cared.

A goal that has a specific ‘outcome’ (like becoming an opera singer before I’m forty) has more value and weigh than a goal to ‘do’ something regularly (like to update this blog everyday with one thing I’ve learned).  I tend to subscribe more to the ends justifying the means rather than the other way around.  But, the ‘do’ goals lead to more clear action so you don’t end up surfing the web while pretending to make sub-goals.  Both of these categories can be SMART.  There are long term goals that don’t need a deadline, there are short-term goals that become irrelevant if not complete in a specific period of time and the ‘do’ goals must just have a time period defined.  There are ‘become’ goals (like become a professional dog trainer) and there are ‘achievement’ goals (like bike the coast of California).

So, here are some goal topics, although all of these need some refinement before being SMART.  I want to spend some time evaluating how relevant each topic is to me.

  1. Find a good goal by the end of January (seems like cheating to make choosing a goal actually a goal – what would be the steps to making this goal attainable?)
  2. Update this blog daily with something new I’ve learned
  3. Work on singing or guitar everyday
  4. Walk my dog everyday to improve personal fitness
  5. Get up twice (or even once) per week and go to yoga
  6. Make our house our own home through remodeling, decorating and improving
  7. Climb an 5.11d climb by some date
  8. Accept help graciously (again, how do I attain this one?)
  9. Get promoted within a year (still tough to attain, but I feel like career goals are the toughest to define)
  10. Refinish kitchen table by March (weather-dependent)
  11. Plant and harvest a garden