Growth entails taking risks, with the degree of risk ranging from taking us slightly out of our comfort zone to significant financial, emotional, and perhaps even physical risk. The thought of facing the consequences of taking risk is simply too much for some to bear, so they protect themselves by not taking risks. In a way, it is like protecting yourself by staying close to home and not venturing out because you feel safer. That is, until you learn that over 50 percent of auto accidents occur within five miles of home and seven million disabling accidents occur within the home each year. So much for playing it safe.
“I Couldn’t Do That” and Other Lies
One of the most effective tactics for risk avoidance is to simply not let risk into your life. In other words, just play it safe and you will not fail or get hurt. For most of my life, I excelled at risk avoidance. Then, the tide turned in 1994. While taking classes toward an MBA degree, I admired the work of some of my professors and got the idea for the next step in my career: Earn a PhD and become a college professor. I went to the library to look at catalogs of different universities to learn more about what it would take to become a PhD. My heart sank as I gathered the information. To complete a PhD program, I would have to do the following:
- Complete two years of course work (“That would probably be very hard- I don’t know if I could do that”)
- Pass a written comprehensive exam (“That, too would be very hard- I don’t know if I could do that”)
- Pass an oral comprehensive exam before a faculty committee (“I couldn’t do that”)
- Defend a topic for dissertation research and gain approval from a faculty committee (“I couldn’t do that”)
- Defend completed dissertation to a faculty committee (“I couldn’t do that”).
Simply put, if I had listened to the voice calling for risk avoidance, I would not be a college professor today. Thankfully, I persevered over the self-doubt that tried to “protect” me on at least five different occasions… months before I took my first doctoral level class.
You may have never contemplated whether to pursue a graduate degree, but you probably find yourself needing to make a stretch decision occasionally, forced to confront that voice that wants to protect you from failure. You know the voice- it says things like:
- I’m too old (or too young)
- I don’t have enough experience
- Only people with connections get chosen
- I need to save more money
The voice means well, but in many cases it is lying to you. The decision to avoid risk has a dangerous side effect: Regret. The short-term relief of being spared embarrassment or disappointment may be eclipsed later by sadness and disappointment that you did not reach your potential.
The One to Grow On quote for this week has special significance in my life. It was my mother’s favorite quote. I never knew the source or context for “of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been.” It comes from the poem “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier, and is a timeless message about the regret of not taking action because of risk avoidance. My mother left this world thirty-five years ago, too soon and before I could ask her what regrets of inaction she had. She no longer exists in a physical presence, but the simple message passed down through Whittier’s quote is vivid in my mind and helped me in 1994 and many times since then..
Don’t be boxed in by limitations imposed in the spirit of avoiding risk. And, we owe it to those around us influenced by our words and actions to pass down Whittier’s lament. In the end, I would prefer to look back and proclaim “how great it was” instead of acknowledging “it might have been.”