Do You Take Chances or Risks?

| | Personal Leadership

It was a bright sunny day on the beach in Hilton Head, SC.  This was the first of what would become an annual gathering of college friends for 20+ years and still going strong.  I invited my brother’s wife, Marla, to join us that year.

As my long time friend, Sheri, my very new sister-in-law, Marla, and I walked down the beach one afternoon we passed by a line up of small Catamaran’s.  I loved to sail although I didn’t know a lot about how to do it myself.  Marla wasn’t too fond of the water as she did not know how to swim.  But I was sure Sheri knew how to sail so I asked if she wanted to rent a sailboat.  We seemed so confident Marla chose to join us for a new adventure.  Soon it felt like we were flying over the waves.

We got out past the breakers and I asked Sheri: “so how do we turn around?”  She quickly replied with: “stop kidding around”.  At that moment I wondered who was actually kidding.  So did Marla who quickly tightened the straps on her life vest.

Turned out both Sheri and I knew more than enough to get started, but neither one of us knew how to actually sail (which involves being able to turn the boat!).  Sheri thought I knew because I apparently asked with great certainty.  I have no idea why I thought she knew how, but I was clearly mistaken.  Fortunately for us we both knew enough to find a way to get the boat back to shore, albeit 200 yards from where we were supposed to end up.  We got lucky.  We also did not spend one moment on blame and all three of us got focused on what we needed to do to figure out how to get back to shore safely.

I learned some very important lessons that day.  We are all in un-chartered territory in some respect.  To say things are changing fast is an understatement.  I don’t know about you, but there are many days I wish I knew far more than I do in many arenas.  These days we often do not know how to accomplish the things we start when we start them.  Sometimes it’s because we have never done them.  Other times it’s because we run into things the people who are teaching us have never encountered either.  And for the most courageous among us it’s because no one has done it before.

I was thinking about that day on the beach this morning and how the lessons apply to life and business today.  There is a big difference between taking a chance and taking a risk.  Either way things might not turn out the way you hope and intend, but if you want to stack the odds in your favor more often than not here are some things to keep in mind…

  • Be clear about what you know and what you don’t, and be forthcoming with what you don’t know. As leaders in any capacity this is especially important because the more certainty with which we speak, the less likely others are to ask questions or challenge our thinking.
  • Be willing to question what you think you know. What we know can gives us confidence and comfort. However, in a fast changing world it is prudent to question often what we think we know so we can learn what we need to learn to succeed.
  • Be willing to learn from both the usual and the unusual places. This includes seeking feedback from the people who aren’t speaking when everyone else in is agreement or who we know see things differently than we do.
  • Be willing to fail, accept the consequences and most of all learn from your mis-steps and failures.  Kriss Akabusi, an Olympic Gold Medalist says “you lose your way to winning.”  If you are not failing, or at least falling down once in a while, you are probably not risking, learning or growing very much.
  • Be the kind of person who can be counted on and surround yourself with people you can count on.  You will know just how important this is when the going gets tough.

I’ll leave you with one last observation…In hindsight I can see that when I have taken chances the only things I could point to as the “reasons why” it didn’t work out were my circumstances.  When I have taken risks there are no reasons, there is only what happened, what there is to learn from it, and a choice about what to do now.

So what about you?  Do you take chances or risks? And what wisdom do you have to share with us from your experience with either?


Enter A Comment

Dorothy Dalton   |   10 March 2010   |   Reply

Great post Susan! There are times when taking that leap into the unknown works and others when calculating a strategic risk is more appropriate – even advisable! Well put!

Susan Mazza   |   11 March 2010   |   Reply

Thanks Dorothy. You make a great point. It is not that one is better than the other. Chances and risks both have their place. The real point is the value of being mindful because as you put it, there are times when “calculating a strategic risk is more appropriate – even advisable”.

Joe Williams   |   10 March 2010   |   Reply

I liked your story and how you weaved it into the message you conveyed. I must admit that I’m unclear on what you are defining as a chance versus what you are defining as a risk. Could you clarify that for me? It appears to be an important distinction you are making and I’m missing it.

Susan Mazza   |   11 March 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for the question Joe and for pressing me for more clarity here. I am going to leverage the responses from Gwyn and Bruce below to respond more fully in a separate comment.

Mike Henry   |   10 March 2010   |   Reply

Susan, that is a great story and I agree with the points you make. That’s the kind of story that can be used for a lot of illustrations. Isn’t it great how everything becomes some type of lesson?

However, , I have to agree with Joe too. What’s the distinction between chance and risk?

Susan Mazza   |   11 March 2010   |   Reply

Life teaches in so many ways! Sometimes we have to see/experience the lesson in many forms to actually learn it! I’ll respond more fully to your question regarding the distinction between chance and risk in a separate comment.

Gwyn Teatro   |   10 March 2010   |   Reply

I’m thinking that if there *is* a distinction between taking a chance and taking a risk it would be about the degree to which we are prepared to do something unfamiliar without thought as to the outcome.
While I haven’t really thought about it before, perhaps a risk is a more calculated activity. You know, one that you have given some time over to preparing for. Maybe risks are about asking ourselves questions about what we might be willing to lose in order to gain something we want more.
On the other hand perhaps chances are simply something we do on the spur of the moment, something we leap into without research or thought about the potential consequences.
Just a thought.
I really liked the story too, Susan. You wouldn’t likely get *me* out sailing because “chances” are I’d get sea sick 🙂

Susan Mazza   |   11 March 2010   |   Reply

Thanks so much Gwyn for sharing your insight regarding the difference between a chance and a risk. Excellent! Really appreciate you thinking with me here. I am going to borrow from your response to clarify the difference for myself and others 🙂

Bruce Lynn   |   11 March 2010   |   Reply

Agree with everyone above. Fine story with some fine conclusions. Unfortunately, the title is a great title, but the post doesn’t go into it in the end. Like Gwyn, I am inferring that you are implying that ‘risks’ are considered and ‘calculated’, while ‘chances’ are not.

What’s not clear is whether there is a place for both ‘risks’ and ‘chances’ as long as you are aware of which one you are taking. Or whether it is the case that people should take ‘risks’, but not take ‘chances’. I think I sort of line up on the latter.

Your post conclusions might be read to imply that ‘chances’ are okay as they provide opportunities to ‘learn from the unsual’ and ‘learn from mis-steps’. But I would argue that one can get those benefits from taking ‘risks’ well with less hazard of big dangers and downsides.

Susan Mazza   |   11 March 2010   |   Reply

All great points Bruce. You sum up the basic difference between the two very well: “‘risks’ are considered and ‘calculated’, while ‘chances’ are not.”

I do think there is a place for both taking chances and taking risks though. Sometimes if we take too much time to fully analyze an option the opportunity will pass us by. And other times our analysis of the risks will be informed so much by our fears that we will talk ourselves out of taking the risk when it may be exactly what we need to do to push us to the next level.

I think it is also important to remember that assessing risk is a lot like forecasting – we can’t really predict the future so we rely a lot on past experience which may in the end prove to be irrelevant.

Some additional thoughts about taking chances…I know personally that I have leaped without thinking very much, basing my choice entirely my on a feeling it was the “right thing to do” at the time. I have had to learn the difference between trusting my gut/following my intuition vs. acting on impulse driven entirely by emotion. Being the eternal optimist I always expect things to turn out – sometimes it does and sometimes it has led to a unpleasant outcome (my best example of this is my first marriage which ended in divorce at age 25).

Ultimately I believe taking a chance is more about taking a leap of faith. Perhaps that is the biggest risk of all. And as I write this response it occurs to me that the kind of chances I try to be mindful of avoiding are the ones purely based on emotion and impulse. Yet I suspect I will continue to choose to take chances on occasion based on intuition rather than a thorough assessment of risk.

I love what Gwyn says: “Maybe risks are about asking ourselves questions about what we might be willing to lose in order to gain something we want more.” And when the answer to those questions are “I don’t know” then perhaps we just have to choose whether or not we are willing to take a chance.

Thanks to all who commented here so far for engaging here and getting me to think more deeply!

Mike Henry   |   11 March 2010   |   Reply

I agree but didn’t want to speculate your meaning in my comment. But what degree of certainty should you assign to any outcome? Isn’t this all just an exercise in probability assessment and contingency planning? Neither of you planned for the contingency that the other one didn’t know how to sail back. Failure to accurately assess the risk made your adventure one of chance, wouldn’t you say? (Just a bit of additional instigation…)


Susan Mazza   |   12 March 2010   |  

Ah, I love it when people instigate…Thank you Mike for continuing to engage!

There was no consideration of or even an awareness of risk so I agree that it was a in fact a chance – an unthinking leap into what occurred as a fun, exciting adventure with no consideration for the potential danger. When we are young we naturally take more chances. I have read that the reasoning function of our brains is not even fully developed until we are about 21. Questioning our assumptions is a key step in assessing risk but the awareness of and skill in doing this can only be learned from experience over time.

On the other hand, while we may get wiser and better at risk assessment over time, which includes probability assessment and leads to contingency planning, our fears tend to magnify over time as well. It seems people are less likely to take chances the older they get. It can be far to easy to hide behind our assessment of risk.

When the reasons why we “shouldn’t” or “can’t” overwhelm our belief in what is possible, it may be time to take a chance or two lest we live the rest of our lives wondering “what if?” rather than courageously pursuing what could be and choosing to have faith in our ability to manifest our dreams.

GL Hoffman   |   12 March 2010   |   Reply

This question of risk tolerance always comes up when I talk to new entrepreneurs…something like How can you know when it is the right time to go for it? How do you manage risk, etc.
It is an interesting topic and you handled it beautifully. BTW, since some of your audience might be thinking about starting their own company, I would like to give them each a pdf copy of my new book STARTUP, 100 Tips to Get Your Business Going. http://www.startup100tips.com. No tricks just trying to do what I can to help. Email me and I will send.
Keep up the good work, Susan.

Mary Ann Reilly   |   14 March 2010   |   Reply

I appreciate the thoughtfulness and interconnectedness of the five things to keep in mind. The challenge I think is determining which or what sequence I might need to attend to the five stages you outline. I think it is easy, and at times perhaps comfortable, to confuse knowing about something with understanding. Thanks Susan for a thoughtful post.

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