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The Prisms of Risk Taking

What scares you?

More importantly, why does it scare you?

Recently, we facilitated a few workshops on taking risks. In those types of workshops, we like to start the day with a little jolt. After briefly introducing ourselves as improvisors, we tell attendees that we’re going to pick one person from the group who will have to come to the front of the room and perform an improv scene with us in front of the group. Right at the start of the workshop!

Gazes avert. Heads dip. A few people do a little body shift to step behind another person in the room. At one workshop where breakfast was served, a woman quickly shoved a bagel in her mouth. We let the unease hang for a second as we scan the room for our selection, finally pointing to a mortified soul and saying, “You! . . . What are you feeling right at this moment?”

We don’t actually have the person perform. It’s all a set-up to isolate that moment of paralyzing fear, and it helps us start the discussion with the group: “What was going on in your head when you thought there was a possibility you’d get called up?”

“Fear of embarrassment.” “Fear of the unknown.” Fear. Not the embarrassment itself. For they hadn’t done anything embarrassing yet, and what could be embarrassing about not being an expert at something that everyone in the room knows they’ve never done before. No one is expecting them to be the next Wayne Brady. So is that really what people are afraid of? That people will cast judgement on them for failing to have mastery of a skill that none of the participants have training on?

In our workshops, we often discuss the dichotomy of fear and opportunity. In an exercise where we look at the difference of, “Yes, but . . .” versus, “Yes, and . . .”, we note how the “but” is rooted in fear, and the “and” is rooted in opportunity. We begin by having people plan a vacation starting every sentence with, “Yes, but . . .”. In this iteration, people naturally start bringing up all the reasons why the vacation will go poorly, or is a bad idea. They often follow, “Yes, but . . .” with, “I don’t” or “I’m not . . .”, as in, “Yes, but I don’t know how to hang-glide.” It’s rooted in fear.

When we switch to, “Yes, and . . .”, the words that tend to follow are, “we could” or “I will . . .”. “Yes, and we could hang-glide from the top of a volcano.” All of a sudden, the sentiment is rooted in opportunity. And why? The prospect of hang-gliding could certainly be construed as risky, but when seen through the prism of opportunity, suddenly it seems fun.

So, flip the script on that morning wake-up call. Imagine a scenario where we start the morning saying we’re going to pick one person to perform a scene with us and, instead of people diving under tables, all hands went up to be called on for the opportunity to learn a new skill. Would that be so strange?

Maybe not. As a matter of fact, when we work with organizations where the owner or CEO participates with his or her staff, we often see this eagerness to participate. The individuals in these leadership positions tend to be more inclined to jump right in and give it a go. So here’s a question: Do they volunteer because they feel that as a leader they have to, or did they achieve a leadership position because of their willingness to put themselves out there? To take risks. To relish in opportunities to learn.

When we talk about risk, we are really talking about the prisms of fear and opportunity, and which one we choose to view our ambitions through. Any new endeavor not only can have both positive and negative consequences, it most assuredly will have both positive and negative consequences. Risk takers see the opportunity to succeed as well as the opportunity to fail - and in turn to learn from those failures.

What is interesting about our workshops is that by the end of the day, all that early morning fear is gone. Participants at the end of the workshop completely throw themselves into their exercises: singing or dancing in scenes, and in general doing all the things they were terrified of just a few hours earlier. Participants now quickly volunteer to jump in on new exercises, knowing full well that they’ll have no mastery of it, and could very well perform it incorrectly or poorly. So why no embarrassment? What changed?

The prism changed. There is now an opportunity to learn, to laugh, to have play in a world outside their comfort zones. Shockingly, people now see an opportunity to embarrass themselves.

Which prism do you view new endeavors through? Does the prospect of something new have you diving under tables, or standing up to volunteer? Chances are that the thing that most frightens you will never come to fruition. Or, maybe, it will come to fruition - and will end up being a crucial part of your success.

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