RFL "Insight"

Published on November 30th, 2014 | by Ben Sands


The Biggest Risk To Your Career? You May Be Surprised…

Ever since I was a little boy, I used to look forward to the annual “Warren Miller” ski movie.

After 90 minutes of footage of the world’s greatest skiers gracing the slopes of the world’s most beautiful mountains Miller, the grandfather of the ski film industry, would always conclude with this challenge:

“So perhaps it’s time to quit your job, pack your bags and move to a ski town… If you don’t do it this year, you’ll just be one year older when you do…”

At some point in my young life, the seed Miller planted started to germinate and, exactly thirteen years ago, I decided to act on his advice: I quit a very nice web development job in New York City to move to Aspen, Colorado – just in time for ski instructor tryouts.

When I announced the move to my friends and family, the reaction was consistent: You’re crazy! Why would you take such a risk? 

The worst reaction, though, came from my mom: she wouldn’t stop crying.

She couldn’t understand why I would willingly step off what appeared to be so safe, secure and prosperous career path in order to teach skiing. She was certain that this was the first step towards a life of poverty and pain. (Fortunately my dad was there to take the phone and give her some time to recover).

Today, reflecting back on that decision, both Mom and I can say with confidence that is was the best career decision I have made to-date.


Because the experience forced me to keep learning. It was on the ski slopes of Aspen that I learned to both teach and sell. Two of the most important skills I have today.

My time in the mountains also dramatically changed the composition of my personal and professional network. I met, and built relationships with, people who continue to inspire, support and nurture me today.

And finally, the decision to change my trajectory so early in my career helped to foster a competency invaluable in both work and life: a tolerance for ambiguity. When I left the corporate world for the mountains I was, for the first time, forced to define success on my own terms – and craft a plan to execute on it. In our ever-changing and increasingly uncertain world, there may be no more valuable skill and experience.

So was the decision to move to the mountains “risky?” Perhaps. In retrospect however, adding a little risk to my professional life proved to be the least-risky decision I could ever make…

How about you?


How much “risk” have you taken thus far in your professional life?

Have you ever pushed the “reset” button after starting down a career path that seemed to be taking you somewhere you didn’t want to go?

Have you ever pursued a “dream” job even when the long-term career prospects seemed unclear?

Have you ever said “no” to a higher-paying job in favor of a position that seemed to align better with your skills, interest and values?

What risks have you taken? What were the trade-offs? Would you make the same choice(s) again?

And finally, how long ago was it that you made such a decision?

For the great majority of the men and women with whom I’ve worked, the answer is the same: too long.


Why are so many really smart guys and gals so averse to career risk-taking?

Because, unlike smart companies, we don’t aspire to simply manage risk in our lives…no, our over-achieving-knucklehead-instincts push us to eliminate risk completely.

This, ironically, is the most risky thing we can do.

The problem is that our effort to control and eliminate near-term risk paradoxically increases our long-term risk exposure.

Social scientists call this the “volatility paradox.”

An apt metaphor is the way the US Forest Service prevents catastrophic wildfires by lighting small, controlled fires during good conditions to protect and safeguard the forest from a “big burn” when conditions are incendiary.

In their book, “The Startup of You” LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha suggest that today, more than ever, young men and women must introduce what they call “intelligent risk” – i.e. lighting more small fires – in our personal and professional lives.

Hoffman and Casnocha believe that the likelihood of unexpected, rare, high-impact – and potentially devastating – events (a.k.a “black swans”) is only going to increase going forward.

“We’ve become so globally interconnected that a minor disturbance anywhere can create major disruption everywhere,” they write.


So what does this mean for you and me?

It means that in order to ensure our well-being and security in the long-term, we must consciously abdicate a bit of that security in the near-term.

It means that we must choose to seek out those opportunities that make us just a bit uncomfortable – to lean in, move on and move up – whether we think we are capable of doing so, or not.

Put another way, it’s time to light a few fires in our life.

Small, controlled blazes that can condition us, protect us, inoculate us from the apathy, indifference and ambition-sucking comfort that ultimately poses the greatest threat to our long term happiness and well-being.

So, here’s the challenge: light a fire today.

Invest in a new skill, take on a new opportunity, start working on your side business or maybe move to the mountains…Ultimately it doesn’t matter what, exactly, you do as long as it stretches you, makes you just a little less comfortable, a little less complacent than you are feeling right now.

Lean in, move on, move up…just get going.

About the Author

Ben Sands is an author, coach, and the founder of Regret Free Life. He writes about careers, money, leadership and how to make decisions you won't regret.

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