On Taking Risks and Gambling

taking risks

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the races with some friends. I’m not a huge fan of horse racing, but someone was kind enough to invite me and so I went along for some food, some company and to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon. As always, people had various tips and ‘sure things’ and so, just for fun, I placed three bets. Not knowing much about horses, I tend not to follow the races very closely, but placing the bets made watching the races a bit more exciting. The first horse I bet on came fifth, and the second one didn’t seem to be doing very well either for most of the race, but with half a lap to go, the horse shot to the front of the pack and won by a nose. For a short while I was getting excited and started thinking of the money I could win if the third horse came in. I watched the third race with bated breath and, lo and behold, the nag came in well behind. So I went home with nothing, and that, of course, is the nature of gambling.

Some years ago, I made another gamble. I moved to a new country and walked away from my old life – I left behind my job, my friends, my house and my parents. I started again. People have sometimes asked me why I took the risk – wasn’t it too much of a gamble? I have often thought about this, and it seems to me that there is an essential difference between taking a risk and gambling.

Growth and development in any area is a risky business. Steven Covey, in his famous Seven Habits of Highly effective People, writes about the importance of pushing outside your comfort zone. This is always uncomfortable and always risky. Whenever we try something new, there is a good likelihood of failure – but this is how we learn and how we grow.  As infants, we learned to walk by falling over – and sometimes getting hurt. This basic pattern stays with us throughout life.

The potential for pain or loss is an inevitable risk of growth, but this risk is not the same as gambling. Effective people understand the risks involved in a particular course of action and actively seek to limit their downside. Driving a car is a risk – people die in accidents every day – but we limit the risk by making sure the car is in good shape, taking out insurance, not drinking before getting behind the wheel, not driving in very bad weather, and so on.

Risk can be managed and approached thoughtfully. The only sensible way to approach gambling, however, is to be prepared to lose everything. When I placed my little bet on the horses, I did so assuming that I was going to lose it all – it was not a risk, it was a sure loss.

Of course, people who know a lot about horses and racing can probably bet in a much more informed way and, as such, their bets would be less of a gamble. But they would still need to assess, and limit, their downside. So how is this done?

First, you need to clearly understand what you are doing. Obviously, you’re not going to try to drive a car if you’ve never had a test, and it would be similarly unwise to start a business without some proper advice or guidance although, oddly, people do the latter all the time – and often fail. This failure can come from not understating the terrain before you set off, and so a risk which could be managed becomes a gamble.

Second, you need to make sure you have the right tools for the job. An experienced mountain climber wouldn’t dream of going climbing without all the right kit – to go unprepared is to court disaster and, once again, to turn a manageable risk into a gamble. A friend of mine once went climbing quite a difficult slope in a pair of trainers. She hurt her legs badly on the descent – a pair of sturdy climbing shoes would have been a more sensible option.

Third, you need supportive and likeminded people around you. Again, a mountain climber is unlikely to set off alone. However experienced ad well equipped he is, there is always the risk of something going wrong – an injury, bad weather – and having help and support if things go wrong can be invaluable. When I moved to my new home, I left everything behind, but I did a good friend to stay with. Her family were locals and so I had a great support network right from the start, and this was an important element in my success.

Finally, the most important thing. While risk should be managed, it should never be avoided. Stepping outside your comfort zone leads to growth, but trying to avoid risk is the most dangerous thing of all since it leads to contraction and loss. Not pushing yourself, not moving outside your comfort zone, means decline and decay. In every part of our lives, there is motion – it is either forward or backwards; we cannot stand still. Starting a new life in a new country has changed me a great deal – I have grown immensely. It was a risk, but it was a risk worth taking.

Photo by Paolo Camera

8 thoughts on “On Taking Risks and Gambling”

  1. Hey Mark,

    I appreciate your final point the most: that risk should be managed, but it should never be avoided. I believe the process of personal growth and creating more options for yourself is in fact achieved by gradually tacking more risks and expanding your comfort zone.

  2. Hello,

    I agree that risk should never be avoided, it should be stared in the face and worked through and it will usually pay off.
    I like to manage risk by looking at the worst consequences. Sounds a little depressing but in fact it is empowering. If I moved away, what is the worst that could happen? I don’t like it? I have wasted time and money doing it? I will look like a failure if I come back?
    Even if all these things did happen, I would still be here, breathing and living and I could deal with it. So I would go for it!! I find this just takes away a lit obit of the fear and uncertainty.

    Thanks for a great post,

  3. Your post reminds me of the movie Finding Nemo, when Nemo’s father (Marlin) says he promised Nemo that he’d never let anything happen to him, and Dory replies that you can’t never let anything happen, then nothing would ever happen (I think I’ve paraphrased?). Point is, unless you live in a cave (and even then) life pretty much forces us to try new things, and as soon as you do, you’re outside your comfort zone, and it’s a risk because it’s unknown. But, that’s not bad – just manage the risk. Break it down, figure out what you can control and what you can’t, figure out how bad it would be if the stuff you can’t control went horribly wrong, what would you do then. More importantly, what would be the best thing that could happen if the tried the new thing. Then, weigh it up and take action. You don’t have to be risk averse, just risk savvy!

  4. Hi, Mark –

    Risk management has always been an interest of mine in the professional world . . . people actually paid me to manage their risk in technical projects and I loved doing the work!

    So much of that way of thinking has carried over into my life . . . such as learning how to evaluate how much I value something and how willing I am to let it go in order to have a chance at something better.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  5. Hey Mark,

    I found this article incredibly interesting and uplifting! Im at a time in my young life were i need this inspiration/motivation. I’ve been pondering a move to a new country (the states from Canada) for months/ years. I have been pushing myself towards this only to be stopped by doubt, fear, and forward thinking into failure(possibility of). I feel i should just go for

    however there’s a catch,
    I have family and a few friends down there, but I’ve got a spark with a girl down there =D I feel this is the main reason i want to go down other than family. I’m wondering if this would make it an unwise decision, or a good opportunity for growth.

    Please let me know what you think, i could really use the advice!


  6. Regarding taking risk and coming out of my comfort zone…this is where I am now at 50+ years old, and it is as awkward and scary as I can ever imagine; but when I think of the alternative of living a life of mediocrity and unfulfilled dreams and goals, the fear and discomfort is a non-issue.

    Thanks for your excellent article.


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