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Risk Taking – Edison vs. Armstrong

January 3, 2016  Min to Reads

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ID-10053076When I think about risk taking, I think about people like Neal Armstrong and Thomas Edison. People who had the courage to do things for which the consequences of failure were extreme. But the stories of these two men in popular culture seem very different, and as a result, I think I learn more about risk taking from Edison than Armstrong. Armstrong’s risk was extreme, no doubt. Failure to execute a moon walk correctly, set aside the whole launching oneself into space on the back of controlled explosive, was extreme in the least and realistically life threatening. There is no question that his accomplishments required a great deal of risk and therefore a great deal of courage.

So why am I more interested in Edison than Armstrong? It is likely that many of the risks that Edison took, while not directly life threatening were extremely threatening to his person, both emotionally and physically. For instance, in the late 1860s Edison was struggling to keep his job with Western Union because he was reportedly spending too much time moonlighting with his inventions. He made the decision to borrow $35 from a friend and move to New York City. It’s not clear what his plans were, but it is reported that he was hungry and living in the basement of a brokerage firm when his fortunes literally changed, creating the opportunity he needed to pursue his entrepreneurial desires and exercise his intellectual genius, ultimately leading to famous inventions like the a new stock ticker and the light bulb. Imagine how different things might be if Edison had not risked poverty and the associated hunger and humiliation attached to his move to New York.

The legend about Edison’s 1,000 attempts to make the light bulb is well know, and the lessons learned from his comment that he didn’t fail 999 times, but just found 999 ways not to make a light bulb are documented multiple times in books and blog posts like this one, but all of this took place well after Edison had already risked careers, comfort, respect, and so much more and become successful.

Risk taking is easy when the risks are not as acutely personal as hunger and social embarrassment. I would argue that risk taking is easier when the risk is death than when the risk is humiliation and poverty. I would also argue that when the risks involve our personal security both emotionally and physically the rewards are often greater, but there are some significant facts about risk taking that we should document here specifically.

  • Risk taking is wisely accompanied by some planning – NASA and Neil Armstrong taught us this
  • Risk taking involves significant uncertainty – you can only plan so much before you either do nothing or do something that requires no risk
  • Risk taking involves failure, often significant and repeated

I want to focus on the last point for a few moments. I’ve heard leaders talk about creating an environment where risk taking is encouraged, and I agree with those leaders on the importance of doing so. However, I’m not always convinced they are really willing to allow the kind of risks that Edison took to achieve his greatness. In fact, Edison had to take his risks outside the established corporate structure. The established corporate structure wanted to fire him. Imagine their profits had they supported his risks, underwritten his efforts, and absorbed his losses. But established organizations are rarely capable of allowing such uncontrolled risks and this is why established organizations grow stale and die.

In a recent conversation with my new fried Tony Harris this topic came up, and we noted the connection between our dreams and our fears. The fact is that almost every person I know has dreams that they are afraid to pursue and they fear to do so because of the risk of failure and rejection. On a personal and corporate level many of us abide in a risk averse culture that must change if we are ever to realize our dreams or transform our company into its next level of greatness. The question is, “what can we mere mortals do?”

Here are some simple tips that may help change the risk averse culture in which you live and work.

  • Capture your dreams and big ideas on paper
  • List the risks involved that are keeping you from pursuing these dreams and big ideas
  • Analyze this list to separate the real risks from the perceived risks
  • Courageously begin pursuing your dreams by tackling the smaller risks then move on to the bigger ones.
  • Get ready to fail

There is no magic in these tips, just some actions you and I can take to get started. It isn’t even about removing the risks. Its about knowing them and facing them and understanding that you will fail and it will hurt but that the failure and the hurt are usually necessary steps to success. That’s just the way life is. I believe that by facing our fears and taking risks, both personally and professionally, we will either help to transform the culture around us or be forced to find a culture more risk friendly and thereby more success oriented. Edison’s risk led to success, which led to the creation of a corporate culture that embraced risk and thrived on the successes taking those risk made possible. Maybe you will be the next creator of a risk taking and transformative culture, but you’ll never know if you don’t start taking some risks and try.

I’d love to hear your stories about risk taking, overcoming fear, dealing with failure, and enjoying victory, so please leave a comment or send me an email.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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