While most successful careers and businesses require a certain amount of risk, few business leaders would likely compare themselves to high-stakes poker players or BASE jumpers plummeting off a cliff. But these professional risk takers may have more in common with you than you think, says science journalist Kayt Sukel, author of the new book The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance.
"Whether I talked to a BASE jumper, professional poker player, or a die-hard special-forces operator, they all tended to say some of the same things about risk," she says. "You have people who come from very different worlds with different training and skill sets that still use this process in the same way to meet their goals.
The similarities are striking—and that’s good news for the rest of us, because extreme risk takers can help us better understand risk. Here are some of the lessons we can learn from them that will help us better face the uncertainty we face every day.
If you think that a BASE jumper is just a crazy badass who risks life and limb every day, you’re not paying attention to the finer points. Risk takers pore over the details, do their homework, and study their situations inside and out because they have so much at stake, Sukel says.
"These folks aren't just walking out in the middle of the street and saying, ‘Hey, I think I'm going to jump out of a plane today,’ or, "You know what, I think it's really time I invade Afghanistan," or whatever. They engage in a lot of planning, they have a lot of background, and they know all the ins and outs of situations before they face them," she says. The better you know your situation, challenges, and objectives, the more successful you can be because you’re prepared, she says.
Despite their stereotype as impulsive and reckless, Sukel says that successful risk takers are planners and typically map out the steps they need to take to achieve their goals. It’s not that they’re taking enormous chances that could jeopardize their lives and livelihoods with no preparation. Instead, they’re successful because they’ve taken myriad small risks and been successful. They’re process-oriented, testing their skills and approaches to ensure they achieve the long-term goal, she says.
When Sukel spoke with BASE jumper Stephanie "Steph" Davis, who lost her sponsorship from nutrition bar maker Clif Bar, which cited concerns about risk, Davis countered that few see the work that goes into her climbs. Sukel says Davis worked for two summers before she climbed the difficult Salathé Wall in Yosemite National Park.
"We see these YouTube videos or these movies where it looks like they just woke up in the morning and decided to throw themselves off a cliff, but no. They're getting the right equipment. Steph even helps design equipment for this stuff. They're always practicing their craft. They're always training. They're always learning more," Sukel says.
And during all of that practice and while taking those smaller chances, successful risk takers notice what they’re doing wrong and correct their mistakes—and they learn to let them go. Sukel says that a risk taker told her, "I don’t fail. I’m just not done yet." That message was revelatory for the author.
"How often in my life have I actually just said, 'Oh I messed this up. I'm done.' What if instead I said, ‘You know what? I'm not done yet. I need to try this again. I need to fall down seven times, get up eight.’ I think a lot of times we miss out on our long-term goals because we get too emotional about the failure, as opposed to the lessons that it can teach us," she says.
You may think you’re not a risk taker, but you’re wrong. Everyone takes risks. Even trying not to take risks has risks, Sukel says. But when you allow your team to have room to innovate and try new things—even things that will not pan out—you’re creating a culture that allows risk. And while no one likes failure, or adverse effects to the bottom line, accepting small failures may help you avoid the bigger ones.
"I think about the scientific method [of research], which has worked out so well. It is a great tool for getting questions answered, for moving forward, for innovation and development, and a big part of the scientific method is, ‘You're not always going to have positive results,’" she says.