A Risky Proposition:
How to Take Smart Risks to Find Success

By Guerline Jasmin

Most people dream of living a more successful life: They want a better job, a salary increase, more responsibility at work, and the respect of their peers. Unfortunately, few people are willing to take the needed risks to make their dreams a reality. Instead, they sit back and watch a select few climb the corporate ladder, while they wallow in self-pity and wonder why good things never happen to them.

The fact is that good things don’t just happen to anyone. Good things happen to those who take risks, thus making their positive outcomes possible. For example, consider sports athletes. The truly great superstars of their game take risks every day. They risk injury during a game with daring plays. They risk getting yelled at by their coach when they make a split-second game decision. They risk complete failure and letting down their entire team when they follow their gut instinct and alter the play mid-game. Sometimes their risks pan out, and sometimes they don’t. However, those who do take risks are the athletes who are household names.

The same is true in business. Every company has a handful of superstars or top achievers who rise among the ranks. And what usually separates these superstars from the masses of employees is the individual’s ability to take a risk. Granted, risk taking isn’t always easy, but it is doable if you follow some solid guidelines. Use the following risk-taking process to enable you to take smart risks and further your professional life.

1. Know what you want to achieve: Before you take any kind of risk, you first have to know your ultimate goal. Do you want to be the company president within five years? Do you want a thirty percent salary increase at your next review? Do you want to be promoted to management and get the corner office? Whatever your big dream is, state it clearly. Depending on your answer, you can work backwards to map out the steps you would need to take to get there. For example, maybe to get a promotion or a salary increase you need to take a risk by volunteering for new projects. List out all the steps and risks you can think of. Now you have a starting point of how you need to proceed to achieve the goal you’ve outlined.

2. Be aware of the different kinds of risks: As you’re likely aware, there are smart risks, and then there are stupid risks. A smart risk is calmly and professionally confronting your boss about an injustice that has transpired in the department. A stupid risk is vandalizing his car to make your point. To be successful, you have to take smart risks. That means that before you take the risk you have to do your research. You have to find out what that risk entails so you can make an intelligent decision of whether it’s a good risk or a bad risk. A good risk has a high probability of success. If the odds are stacked against you, you probably won’t succeed. Therefore, you have to make sure you have the facts. For example, if you’re investing money you have to check out the investment: What’s the success rate? What’s the return potential? What’s the timeline for the return? Once you know the facts you can make an informed decision. The key is to be prepared before you take a risk to make sure it’s something worthwhile and not something that’s going to set you back.

3. Don’t let external conditions distract you: Often, people let external conditions intimidate them and force them to back away from a risk. For example, perhaps you want to apply for a promotion at work. You mention something to a co-worker about your decision and learn that you’ll have a lot of qualified competition for the job. You do a little checking around and find out that these more-qualified people are indeed applying for the same promotion as you. Because of this information, you decide not to take the risk and not to go for the promotion. You let the competition intimidate you. While knowing what external conditions you’re facing is important, you can’t let this information be your sole decision criterion for whether or not to take the risk. Instead, analyze the external conditions and figure out what makes you different or more likely to succeed. Focus on those positive qualities you bring to the table. Chances are your unique positive attributes will make all the difference.

4. Stop being a spectator: Getting ahead in business is not a spectator sport. So just because you know what risks you need to take doesn’t mean you’ll achieve success. You now have to get involved and get your hands dirty so you can get where you want to go. Talk to your boss about that raise you want. Ask for more responsibility on the job. Take a prospective mentor out to lunch. As you move forward, be prepared for rejection. Whenever you ask for something, there are only two answers: yes or no. Just because someone says “no” to you doesn’t mean you’re not worthy or that you’re not going to get where you want to go. That’s just part of taking that risk. So take action and do whatever is necessary to make your goals a reality. Remember that a risk without action is merely a dream. Have the courage to take meaningful action steps today.

RISK: A Smart Four-Letter Word: Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our risks don’t pan out. Realize that failure is part of the risk-taking process. The key is to dissect your results so you can see what happened, learn from your mistakes, and then move on. When you move forward with knowledge, your next risk will usually turn out better.

No matter what you want in your professional life, you’ll likely need to take a risk or two to get there. And while the thought of taking risks can be scary, remember that the results are what will set you apart from the crowd. So start planning your next risk right away. The more smart risks you take in your life today, the more positive results you’ll achieve in your future.

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