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When we talk about "playing it safe," what are we really saying? At its most basic level, "playing it safe" means n...
When we talk about "playing it safe," what are we really saying? At its most basic level, "playing it safe" means not taking risks. The conventional wisdom is that risky behaviour is bad, and could possibly cause harm. But this blanket approach to the unknown could be holding you back: not all risks are created equal. There is such a thing called a "positive risk," and there's been plenty of detailed writing on its benefits.
A positive risk is much more calculated than one on the opposite side of the scale: it's not an impulsive act of abandon. It can often have a huge payoff, but even if it fails there's some reward there. Maybe you go out on a limb, start your own business, and it folds in a year. True, you may be left in a tough financial spot at the end of it, but you're also left with experience, personal growth, and a new perspective that can only help you in the long run. Contrast that with a negative risk like, say, skydiving, where the upside of success is a temporary rush and not dying.
Being challenged is a fundamental part of growing as people, and it's a natural function of life. As we develop from helpless babies to full grown adults, we're constantly taking risks, whether we want to or not: That terrifying first day of school; asking someone out on a date; learning to drive a car; leaving home and going to college—all of these are positive risks, and over the long term we are rewarded handsomely for taking them.
Even the little failures along the way—being told "no" when asking for that date, realizing that maybe college isn't for you—help us to continue refining ourselves into more successful creatures. The very fact of making it past some event or decision we were nervous about in advance reinforces that the positive risk is worth taking. Learning your strength in the face of adversity, knowing you can work past failures and setbacks, steels you for your next challenge.
Playing it safe, on the other hand, can lead to stagnation. Maybe you keep a low profile at work; fearful of a public failure, you avoid making suggestions for improvement. Do this, and you'll be rewarded with stability and predictability in your day-to-day life. If you're lucky, you may skate by unnoticed through an entire career, earning a living doing the same old thing day in and day out. More likely, though, is that your employer will outgrow you.
Businesses are dynamic and growth-oriented; when it comes time for management to make decisions about who fits in with future plans, the people who stuck their necks out are going to seem like the better fit. And playing it safe will land you in the unemployment line.
Forbes magazine recently reported about advanced brain imaging, and how the technology has led neuroscientists to show that our brains skew the reality of risk-taking.
We tend to overestimate the magnitude of any given risk and underestimate our ability to navigate through it.
That's something to keep in mind the next time you're weighing your options on a particular decision. And it's worth considering that shying away from a new challenge isn't exactly the safer option. With little to no upside, and a potential for serious negative impact, playing it safe is a risk you can't afford to take.