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The Rewards of Risk

By Sue Allon

I read recently in Psychology Today that the happiest people are risk-takers.  I believe it. 

I like risk.  I loved learning high performance driving at the Bondurant School.  I even found it double-exciting when I wiped out on a corner.  (Not because I was going too fast; I just forgot which corner I was on and turned left instead of right.  A boneheaded mistake, which wouldn’t have been that big a deal, except for the obvious outcome.)

I loved shooting an AK47 in the Israeli desert, taught by a secret police officer, a 30-year-old mother of nine who lived on a kibbutz.  I loved packing all my possessions into my car, selling anything that wouldn’t fit, and driving off to a new life in New Hampshire, where I attended business school.  I didn’t know anybody, had no idea how I would pay for it, or if it would even work out for me. 

Happy times.  Great memories.

I loved starting Murrayhill and Allonhill.  It was thrilling and satisfying to wake up with the knowledge that I would have a paycheck only if I talked someone into hiring my company.  One of my scariest career moments happened when I realized that my payroll run for two weeks was more than my own annual salary had been a few months before, when I’d left a safe, secure job to start my business.  And I vividly recall the feeling I had when an employee’s banker called to verify his employment, which made me realize his family and his home depended upon my company’s success.

Unforgettable—I was proud and excited.  And very, very scared.

I love those things; live for them, actually.  But I would never, ever bungee jump or leap out of an airplane, “go all in” at Vegas, or any of the daring things that people think of when they define a thrilling risk.  I’ve always drawn the line at things that could get me killed, because I’m kind of clumsy and things don’t always work out perfectly (like going left on a right-turn corner).  Also, I don’t enjoy risks that bring momentary exhilaration.  I value risks that give me the sense that I own my own fate – destiny defining risks.

I wasn’t always that way.  In fact, I remember….

One of my favorite things in life is public speaking.  Why?  Because it’s exciting, and it’s high risk.  When I went to graduate school, I agreed to be a teaching assistant.   As an undergraduate TA, I simply sat around a classroom in the afternoon with a teacher’s guide to the textbook, and helped other kids work through problems.  At grad school, being a TA required more work, and something very scary.   I didn’t know - until I walked into the large lecture hall packed with students - that I was expected to stand before the class and review material the professor had covered the previous day.  I was completely unprepared.  Even if I’d known the material, it wouldn’t have mattered.  I had never stood in front of a big group and said two words.  I stammered.  First I said my name, then I made all the students say their names, and then I said, “That will be it for today.”  

I walked straight to Professor Frakes’ office, and told her I had to resign because I wasn’t going to be able to do the job.  She tried to calm me down and talk me out of quitting, but I was inconsolable.  She said she would accept my resignation, but on one condition—that I sleep on it before finalizing the decision.  And she added one, important word of advice:  I should consider making what I was worst at what I was best at, instead of letting it defeat me.

I’ve never forgotten that advice.

I’ve lived by those words since that experience.  I did sleep on it, and by morning I had made up my mind.  I would face my fears and make public speaking the thing I excelled at, not the thing I most feared and loathed.  I went into class the next day over-prepared and determined to teach.   It was as if I was a different person.  I exuded confidence.  And I’d decided to have a great time.  Ever since then, although not all my public speaking has gone perfectly, I’ve loved doing it, and I’ve exalted in getting better at it.  I still get excited and still find it risky and sometimes even thrilling.  I challenge myself constantly to rely less on notes and memorization.

I am a face-your-fears gal, but it didn’t come naturally for me, and I bet it doesn’t come easily for many people.  I believe the writers of Psychology Today;.  People who take risks are happier.  Give it a try.

You won’t forget the rewards. 

"The biggest risk is not taking any risk... In a world that's changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks." - Mark Zuckerberg