The Risk of Not Taking Risks
It happened a few days ago. I was talking to an old college friend. We haven’t seen each other in over ten years but we talk a few times a year to catch up. After about 10 minutes of conversation, he dropped a reality on me. He lost his job. He had been out of work for about 6-7 weeks. He was part of a major downsizing at his company. The company, a major national organization, laid off roughly 500 people. More specifically the company eliminated a few positions nationwide, which affected 500 people. These people were not given the chance to apply for transfers within the company. They were just gone, rather brutally.
Beyond the concern I had for my friend I felt a tinge of pity for him. He was college educated, by every account a good and hard worker, consummate team player. He had been in this position for at least 6-7 years and never once displayed any desire for a promotion or the chance to develop new skills.
He would frequently reply that he was happy, had a good job and didn’t want to take any risks. He thought his company would reward his loyalty. He thought the company would recognize that he was a great team player. He thought the company would never consider laying him off. He thought he was different.
He wasn’t. And the realization sucked. My friend was unwilling to take any risks; he was unwilling to explore new career opportunities at his company or outside his company. He was content to be happy. And he watched as his skills eroded and became obsolete. He ultimately made more money than the company deemed his position was worth. His company felt that it was overpaying him. The company could more cheaply outsource his job. The company could more cheaply replace him..
My friend was risk averse. Forget about taking an entrepreneurial type risk such as quitting his job and creating a new business. He was averse to taking risks in developing new skills, moving out of his comfort zone and taking new career changes within his organization. What his company saw was someone who lacked ambition and professional hunger. By his own inaction, he became expendable and ultimately was eliminated.
Now he is out of work, enjoying a decent severance package but one that is slowly beginning to diminish. Because he worked in the same position for so many years, he has not developed any new skills. This is fine for someone who is 28, not as fine for someone who is 43. The number of jobs that fit his basic skill set are few and there are currently at least 500 people competing with him for those positions. Now he has to talk to recruiters and companies and explain why he never developed new skills, why he did not try for advancement. Those conversations will be uncomfortable.
My friend confided in me that he lays awake in bed at night wondering what he is going to do. I can’t exactly help him but I can understand him. I’ve been in that same situation for 10 years. I understand the struggle, uncertainty and anguish of not working and wondering how I am going to provide for my family.
Beyond the sorrow I felt for my friend, I sadly realized that my view was right. Everything we do in life is a risk. We have to accept that, embrace it and make it work for us. We need to understand the consequences of both our actions and our inactions. His company didn’t see a loyal employee, his company saw an employee who had lost motivation and was not ambitious. By not taking risks with his career, he made himself outdated. Why should a company keep someone who is not hungry?
This realization is vitally important in today’s workforce. As the 4th industrial revolution begins, as robotics and artificial intelligence become more integrated into our professional lives we all face the reality that at some point we will become obsolete. We can only counter this by developing new skills, evolving and being willing to try new things. Companies want to see people willing to evolve, not people willing to stand pat. Companies want to see that the investment they are making in employees is offering a return.
Change involves risk. When we begin the process of change, we are moving to areas of discomfort and growth. We are reluctant to start the process because we will look foolish. The newness of change is uncomfortable and awkward. Generally, this initial discomfort prevents us from really embracing change.
Yet in choosing to stay in our comfy, um…zone of comfort…we begin missing out on opportunities for new experiences, we lose out on the chance to enrich our lives. We fail to develop new perspectives and open our minds.
In our professional lives, risk is good. It helps us understand and define our strengths and weaknesses. Risk helps us become more adaptable to change. Life has changed too much for us to keep sticking our heads in the ground to avoid unpleasantness. As the work paradigm continues to evolve, employers will be looking not at the “best” employees at their jobs but the employees who show the greatest capacity to take risks, try new things and grow. Everyone else will simply be working on borrowed time.
And my friend, he realized his error in not taking risks or developing new skills. Unfortunately, it was too late to make a difference at his old company and he is now looking to rapidly adapt to a changing work dynamic. He always wanted to play it safe and not take risks. That turned out to be the greatest risk of his life.
Regrettably, he is not the only one in such a situation. Many more have embraced the same strategy in life and in their jobs. It might seem like the right action today but in taking the long view, not taking risks leads to becoming obsolete.