On Taking Risks and Gambling

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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