by Chuck Swoboda
Three ways to help yourself and others adopt a risk mindset
A common trait of many great leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs is a risk mindset. They understand that risk and reward are fundamentally linked, and that failure is paradoxically an integral part of success. Robert F. Kennedy described this well: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
Consider Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, who are ranked first and second on Forbes’ annual list of the wealthiest people in the world. They have a combined net worth of $211 billion, which would put their personal wealth in the top 50 countries ranked by GDP. Because of this, it is easy to think only about their success. However, if you look a little closer, you will also find that they have developed a unique perspective on taking risks and the consequences of failure.
In Jeff Bezos’s 1997 letter to shareholders, he said: “Nine times out of ten, you’re going to fail. But every once in a while, you’ll hit a home run that in business terms is more like one thousand runs. Given a ten percent chance of a one hundred times payoff, you should take that bet every time.”
Bill Gates said in his book, Business @ the Speed of Thought, that “once you embrace unpleasant news not as negative but as evidence of a need for change, you aren’t defeated by it. You’re learning from it. It’s all in how you approach failures. And believe me, we know a lot about failures at Microsoft.”
Yet, this risk mindset they’ve both developed doesn’t just happen overnight – it is learned through experience. So, here are three ways you can help yourself and others become more successful by being less afraid of failure.
Get Comfortable with Risk
Most people have been trained to limit risk in an effort to avoid failure, but what you really should be doing is embracing risk so that you become unafraid of failure.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama described this concept in an interview about how he became a better president over time by saying: “You lose fear… You’re not pretending to be fearless. That you know that it’s all happened. I’ve been through this, I’ve screwed up, and I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged and lived. That is such a liberating feeling.”
As people take more risks and, as a result, survive more failures, they start to realize that the biggest risk is often doing nothing at all, especially in a world where innovation is continually redefining what is possible. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, explained in a conversation with Sam Altman: “In a world that is changing so quickly, the biggest risk you can take is not taking a risk…If you are stagnant and you don’t make those changes, you are guaranteed to fail.” To get comfortable with risk, you have to practice taking it. By doing so, you eventually become unafraid of the inevitable failure that comes with trying to do something that’s never been done before.
Recognize that Failure is Learning
The Oxford dictionary defines failure as a lack of success. It is a simple, factual statement, yet for many people, it also comes with a multitude of negative emotions. Because of these emotions, we attempt to avoid failure at all costs.
Yet, the most successful people have something in common: They are aware of the many things they try that are not successful, but they don’t classify them as failures; instead, they embrace them as learnings.
Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, described those who could view failure as learning in this way: “They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated. And that’s what they were doing—getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.”
Finding success requires you to change your perspective on failure — to see failure as your friend. Once you embrace this new friend, it becomes much easier to learn the lessons it is trying to teach you.
Make Success the Only Option
The success of any endeavor starts with the leader and ultimately comes down to their ability to get a team of people to embrace this same risk mindset. The challenge is that most organizations are filled with people that have a lot of well-practiced resistance to risk and failure. And despite the best efforts of most leaders, it is extremely difficult to logically convince a group of risk avoiders to suddenly abandon their core belief.
The key is not to try to win a logical argument with them, but instead create a situation where embracing risk and facing failure is their only option for success.
In “normal” times, people tend to avoid risk. The status quo is comfortable, and that comfort is what most people seek. The default is not to embrace risk, but rather avoid it. Psychologist Jennifer Kunst said, “The mind is like a rubber band; you can easily stretch it temporarily, but it snaps back to its resting position. We resist change.”
So to get a comfortable team to embrace risk, you need to create a crisis. This will fundamentally alter people’s perception of change by making them realize that the status quo is no longer an option. In a crisis, you are forced to try something new, because you know that if you do nothing, failure is inevitable.
The risk mindset is an incredibly powerful tool to drive success in your own life and in the larger context of whatever organization you are a part of. However, it is a tough skill to master. You first have to get comfortable with risk through practice and experience. Then, classify any unsuccessful pursuits not as failures but as learnings. And finally, don’t be afraid to create a crisis to force your team to embrace change and make success their only option. If you can do these three things, then you will unlock the great rewards that reside on the other side of big risks.
Chuck Swoboda is the innovator-in-residence at Marquette University and president of Cape Point Advisors, where he’s focused on leadership and innovation. He retired as chairman and CEO of Cree, Inc. in 2017 after a 25-year career growing the company from $6 million in revenue to over $1.6 billion. During that time, he started the LED Lighting Revolution that led to the obsolescence of the Edison light bulb. Chuck is a co-inventor on 25 patents covering LED and Lighting related technology. He was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year for the Carolinas in 2010. MIT Technology Review named Cree one of their 50 Smartest Companies for 2014 and Fast Company named Cree one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2015. Chuck hosts a weekly podcast called Innovators on Tap and his book, The Innovator’s Spirit, was published in May of 2020.