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Who Dares, Wins

How to act boldly but not foolishly

4 min read

We’ve all heard examples of the great things that can happen to those who take risks. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, founded Microsoft, and became the richest man on the planet. Steve Jobs completely changed both the hardware and software foundations of Apple’s long-established Macintosh line of computers and was rewarded with increased market share and critical acclaim within the PC industry. Burt Rutan eschewed decades of experience with solid and liquid rockets in favor of a hybrid engine that helped him seize the US $10 million Ansari X-Prize for the world’s first private reusable spacecraft.

Yet taking such gambles runs counter to our basic human instinct to be safe and avoid risk. After all, we’ve all also heard of disasters that have befallen other risk takers: people who quit stable jobs to join start-ups, only to be out of a job six months later; those who bet the farm on a promising technology just before the market goes in a different direction; and unfortunates who figure a problem isn’t all that important--just before it blows up in their faces. Indeed, what engineer hasn’t heard the ultimate expression of pessimism in Murphy’s Law: ”If anything can go wrong, it will”?

But remember those potential rewards! In making decisions at work, we are often fearful of the risk of making a ”wrong decision.” Being innovative at work--another prized skill--is difficult when you are afraid to take risks. Do you want to be hamstrung by Mr. Murphy for your whole engineering career?ï»' Instead, let’s look at how you can approach risk sensibly.

It helps to think of risk in its context--something often difficult to do. For example, almost 2800 people were killed in New York City during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Are people now more afraid of going to work in various urban or high-rise locations? Anecdotal evidence suggests yes. However, about 40 000 people die every year in automobile accidents in the United States, and countless more are injured. Each of us surely knows some of these people. Yet I would say that virtually none of us really worries about the risks we take in getting into a car. When evaluating a risk, try to step back and make an honest comparison with other risks in your life: are you really doing something exceptionally perilous?

There are things you can do to better manage risk in your career. Managing risk is essential. We can buy insurance to ­protect ourselves and our families from catastrophic risks--unexpected death, major injury, and property loss. But we can’t really get insurance for our professional careers. (If anyone knows where engineers can obtain ”career insurance,” please contact me.) So although there are no absolutes--that’s why it’s called risk--here are some things to consider:

Improve your awareness. Taking risks may be as important as any other skill you develop in your life and your career. Understand that virtually everything in life entails a measure of risk--including things you don’t do. In your job, for example, when you face a risky decision, you should ask yourself, ”What good do I get from taking this chance? What do I stand to lose?” This is the ”calculated risk,” even if you don’t take out a calculator to analyze every situation. Know your options, and the pros and cons of each choice, before you decide.

Become more comfortable with taking risks. You take a risk in trying a new restaurant or cuisine, so ”Go for it!” occasionally, and chalk it up to experience if you don’t like it. Decide not to lug the umbrella to work, and if it rains, just plan to stay under cover and wait it out. Take some chances with little consequence, and see how you feel about it. Congratulate yourself for trying something new, and many times you’ll be rewarded for taking that chance.


Do a potential-problem analysis. Try this form of contingency planning, taken from the Princeton, N.J.�based consulting company Kepner-Tregoe: for the thing you’re worried about--the risk of doing a presentation at an important meeting, say--use a four-step process. First, identify all the specific things that could go wrong. Second, figure how likely it would be for each of them to happen. Third, determine how serious each one would be. And last, work out how you could cope if things should go wrong.

Let’s say you’re arranging for audiovisual equipment to give a presentation. Lots of things can go wrong; for example, there’s a risk the projector won’t sync with your laptop. First, determine how likely the problem is to happen; as we all know, a laptop-projector compatibility issue is likely. The problem’s severity depends on how important the PowerPoint segment is to the effectiveness of your presentation. Could you do without it? Coping with the situation could involve bringing handouts, sending the presentation in advance to load on the host’s audiovisual system, or bringing a different video converter. (You can see I have developed several backups to manage that risk from personal experience.)

Failure can be acceptable. One time I led a team that selected an excellent contractor for an important project. I wanted to send a well-deserved thank-you memo to each of my team members, and copy the department directors to make sure they saw the praise for their staff. I should have had my new manager review my memo before I sent it, because you weren’t supposed to copy higher-level executives in my company. But I decided not to do that because I was afraid she would tell me not to send it out at all. So I considered what might happen when she found out. I felt that the worst would be a tongue-lashing--”Don’t do this again!”--and I could live with that. I was ready with my plea for forgiveness: ”I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I will check with you the next time.” (Another management maxim: ”It is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”) All that came out of it was a handwritten note on my manager’s copy: ”Nice memo.” And the memo was prized by the individuals on my team.

So take action to get more comfortable in assessing and managing risks. Become a risk taker in the best sense. If you do, you are likely to be more effective, less stressed, and happier in your engineering career and in your personal life.

About the Author

CARL SELINGER is an aviation and transportation consultant and a college professor. He gives professional development seminars on nontechnical skills, called ”Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School.” His book of the same title was published by Wiley-IEEE Press and in China by Science Press. More information is available at https://www.carlselinger.com.

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