Risk scares the bejesus out of people. Many of us associate risk with failure, failure with pain. Yet we’re told we have to take plenty of risks to succeed. Thus, success must be painful, right? Not necessarily…
When it comes to challenging our preconceived notions about risk, the common platitudinal question that gets tossed around by kindhearted friends and self-help gurus is, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Truth be told, some risks are fairly benign: jettisoning most of your material possessions, asking a cute guy or girl for his or her phone number, writing the first page of the book you’ve always wanted to write. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Likely, nothing at all. There is no real risk in these innocuous endeavors.
Other risks, however, probably should scare the shit out of you: skydiving, purchasing a home, quitting your job. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Umm, some pretty awful shit actually: death, debt, and poverty, respectively. Although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take these risks; it means you should approach each risk with logic, reason, and intuition. Peer over the edge before taking your proverbial leap, and if it makes sense, then leap. Because not leaping can be a much bigger risk.
The difference, then, between the benign risks and the real risks, is that the latter possesses potentially life-altering worst-case consequences, while the former poses virtually no threat at all.
But, when you think about it, the benign risks can also hold life-altering consequences if you change the question: What is the best—not the worst, but the best—thing that could happen? Perhaps getting rid of your excess stuff will free up time and money and space and give you some much needed peace of mind. Perhaps that phone number will lead to a fulfilling relationship. Perhaps writing that first page will lead to a second and then a third and so on until you’re staring at a bestseller. Any of these outcomes would likely change your life for the better.
Similarly, the real risks can have tremendous upsides. Jumping from a plane could be the most exhilarating experience of your life, the first time you’ve truly felt alive. A new home might be ideal for your family, a place in which you enjoy meaningful experiences, an investment. Walking away from your career could be the catalyst toward starting your own business or a life of growth and contribution (it was both for us).
That doesn’t mean you should undertake any of these risks, either. It just means that maybe we ought to ask these two questions more frequently. After all, what’s the worst/best thing that could happen if we did?