Updated: Feb 23
“True mastery is really, really hard. I think that’s one reason why few people achieve it. It requires enormous amounts of work and persistence. It requires time. It requires grit. It requires effort. It requires setbacks. And many of us aren’t willing to accept that deal. We want to achieve mastery without pain. And that’s not possible.” —Daniel Pink
A lot of people romanticize risk. And by a lot of people, I mean pretty much all of us. We make blockbuster movies about the glories of risk every single year. Most of our popular novels are built around the idea that risks are awesome, and risk takers are heroic. We’re infatuated by any story where the protagonist takes a daring leap of some noble or ridiculous variety and, while it’s touch and go for a while there, it pays off in the end.
Risk—>Reward. Risk—>Reward. That’s how it’s always supposed to work, right?
In the movies, sure. But deep down, we know better. We know risks are called risks for a reason.
RISK (noun): the possibility of loss or injury. See PERIL.
By definition, risks are dangerous. They introduce circumstances into your life that may cause you to suffer loss. Sometimes that potential loss is small; other times, it can be devastating. Either way, it’s important to be clear-minded about what you’re getting into when you get into risk.
You might succeed.
You might fail.
Thankfully, there is a way to turn every risk into a win, even the ones that swing wide of their intended goal. The key lies in understanding the nature of The Risk Cycle, and how to maximize it for your own learning and transformation.
What is The Risk Cycle? It’s the natural process of learning from risk that humans have been doing for thousands of years. It’s not complicated, but once you understand how it works, you can turn every risk into a personal win—even the ones that may look from the outside like a public disaster.
Here’s how it works:
1. RISK: As I’ve said in my previous entry on this topic, not all risks are created equal. But once you are confident the risk you want to take is Good, and True, and Beautiful, then the next thing to do is get out there and take it.
2. RECOVER: Every time you take a meaningful step outside of your comfort zone, the experience sends shockwaves through your system. Even small risks do this. Think of the last time you spoke in front of a group of people impromptu, or were called on to perform some action while a bunch of other people looked on. The experience left you feeling exposed, didn’t it? Maybe you had the impulse to run away. Maybe you even stepped outside to “catch your breath.” That’s the body’s normal response to stress, and it happens even when the stress involves a risk you really love and are excited about taking. Your body is telling you it needs a little time to recover from the shock of the action you just took. Sometimes a few minutes is all you need. Sometimes you might need as much as a week. Maybe even longer. The important thing is to pay attention to your internal state, and give yourself the time you need to settle back to a relaxed “normal” frame of mind after you take a risky step.
3. INTEGRATE: Only once you’re back in a peaceful state of mind are you ready to capture the learning from your experience. Think back over the risk you just took. Analyze it as you might an Olympic performance. What worked well? What didn’t? What specific attitudes or actions moved you forward toward your goal? What attitudes or actions got in your way? What did you fail to consider? What were you worried about that proved to be no worry at all? Capture all the learning on paper, then plot your strategy for the next attempt. What will you do differently the next time you face this or any similar risk?
Before you move on, consider how this experience has changed who you are. What is the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are before you took this risk? How does that story need to change as a result of taking the risk? For example, let’s say you’ve always thought of yourself as hopelessly timid in the presence of large crowds. But then you took the risk of joining Toastmasters, and now you’ve given a bold speech in front of a crowd of strangers. So are you still the kind of person who is hopelessly timid in large crowds? No, definitely not. So if you’re no longer that, what are you now?
This step of integrating your risk experience into your personal narrative is critical. If you don’t do it, you’re likely to shrink back to old patterns of behavior even after proving you are capable of moving beyond them. Why? Because you haven’t updated the story you tell yourself about who you are so that it matches the new data. All of us have probably heard stories about the guy who successfully lost 100 pounds and got into terrific shape but says he still sees “that fat guy” when he looks in the mirror. Why is that? Because he hasn’t updated his internal narrative about who he is. He won’t truly be able to own the change he’s made until he updates the story he tells himself about who he is so that it matches the person he has actually become.
4. REST: Once you’ve integrated the learning from your risk, take some time to normalize it. Live your normal life with this new identity and learning in place. Let the cement set. Notice how this change seeps into and alters aspects of your life in unexpected ways. Notice what shifts, and what doesn’t. Let these new revelations become part of your (now expanded) Comfort Zone. Once it all seems normal to you, then you’re ready to take on the next risk.
Of course, not every risk we take fits neatly into this 4-step format. What about moving to another country to take on a new job? Or getting married? Or letting go of a relationship that has meant a lot to you? The thing is to try as much as possible to break down these Big Risks into smaller, individual steps, and to treat each of these as a Risk Cycle event all its own. Thinking of moving to another part of the country? Try living there for a month first. Want to lose 30 pounds? Make your first goal to lose five. By breaking down bigger risks into smaller ones, you not only raise your chances of success in the long run, but also maximize your personal growth and transformation every step along the way.
Here are some other final tips for taking risks successfully:
Every time you complete a Risk Cycle, the next risk often naturally presents itself.
Avoid taking on more than one or two risks at at time. Risks take energy, intentional focus, and time. We don’t have an unlimited supply of these things. Attempting multiple risks at once only diffuses your available energy and focus. It’s also much more difficult to make multiple identity shifts at once.
When taking a risk, make a habit of championing yourself every small step of the way: “Good job! You nailed it! You’re awesome!” This helps your mind relax, and normalize risky situations as something you don’t need to be afraid of.
If you keep spiraling out of a Risk Cycle, chances are the risk you’re attempting is too big. Make the risk smaller, and try again.
If you keep forgetting about a Risk Cycle, it may be the risk isn’t really risky enough for you to care about. Make the risk bigger (i.e. more at stake and more vulnerable), and try again.
Data is your friend. Don’t base your success on how you feel about it all. Set up measurable waypoints and track them over time. SMARTER goals really help, especially in the beginning of a new practice. Click here for a simple guide to creating S.M.A.R.T.E.R goals.
Find a risk partner (or several). Risks become much easier and more fun to do when you do it with other people. Your risk partners do not need to be taking the same risks you are; they only need to be taking risks in the same way you are…that is, following the Risk Cycle and integrating the learning as they go.
Integration requires active processing. You need to literally “make meaning” of your experience. Journaling is a terrific tool for that. If you don’t already journal, it’s definitely time to start!
Here’s to a truly spectacular year of RISK!
“Success doesn’t come to you, you go to it.” —Marva Collins