No risk, no reward. It’s a common enough expression, albeit one generally ignored in both business and life in favour of risk-averse stability, to the detriment of both success and satisfaction.
The Strangest Secret
Earl Nightingale was an American radio personality, speaker, and author known for his motivational works. His 1956 spoken word record, The Strangest Secret, sold more than a million copies, making it the first spoken-word recording to achieve Gold Record status . However, it is another of his records that is the focus of this piece . In this record, on the topic of the value of risk, he argues that risk-taking is not only a profoundly necessary endeavour for anyone hoping to get ahead, but also, paradoxically, not that risky – if done right.
It’s a message as relevant today as it was then.
Risk is any action or decision that carries an element of uncertainty, with both potential gains and losses. In business, it encompasses everything from launching a new product in uncharted markets to making significant financial investments.
Nightingale is quick to point out that there is a big difference between taking a calculated risk and a more abstract one. The former is “the man who risks all of his time on a goal he wants to reach, on a dream in his heart, who stakes his livelihood and the livelihood of his family upon his own brains and the proper use of his time and tackles the world single-handed. Here’s the risk-taker, to whom the spoils will generally accrue.” The latter is “the impractical dreamer and stargazer.”
He posits that the vast majority of people in the world are not risk takers. According to data of the time, “98% of men in the country are looking for security in their work. That is, they’re mainly interested in losing themselves deep in the warm, nourishing viscera of some large corporation.” (It should be noted that his recording was made at a time when men made up the majority of the workforce, but that his points hold relevance for all genders, in and out of the workplace.)
While he has no problem with those who choose to prioritise security, he notes that there are many benefits afforded to the risk-taker above such people, whether that risk-taker ultimately ends up succeeding or not.
The risk-taker, crucially, must think. Meanwhile “the man with the good steady job who’s familiar with his work and surroundings can go along pretty well from day to day without doing any creative thinking at all.” Such workers, whom Nightingale refers to as the play-it-safers, don’t need to do any more than they have to do. They are masters at getting by. Steady, secure, and ultimately unchallenged.
Meanwhile, for the risk-takers, forced to spend their time thinking, other doors open. Because anyone who spends a great deal of their time thinking “is going to come up with a good idea once in a while. The law of averages is on his side.” And all it takes is one good idea to succeed.
The risk paradox
The paradox at the centre of Nightingale’s argument is that risk-taking, if done properly, in other words by dedicating oneself wholeheartedly to a craft or idea and putting the work in, is far more likely to make one successful than playing it safe. Strange as it may sound, risk-taking is not that risky.
Part of the reason risk-takers have a surprisingly strong likelihood of success is that they are a rare breed. At the time of his recording, they made up 2% of the population – “and since [the risk-taker is] generally working on an idea that will in some way serve the big 98%, the odds swing rather favourably to his side.”
The role of failure
Why is it that risk-takers are such rarities? Well, because “anytime you attempt anything in which you risk failure, you run the risk of having people laugh at you.” Nightingale gives the example of Alexander Graham Bell, who was ridiculed all across New England while trying to gain investment for his grand idea – a device that let the human voice travel down a wire. He was mocked, then mocked some more, until eventually his idea worked, at which point he went from being the town laughing stock to a seismic historical figure who expanded the scope of human communication forever.
A more recent example would be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s now infamous appearance White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word in 2009, at which he performed a song from a new musical he was writing – a historical hip-hop number about one of the US founding fathers. He was met with laughter from some of the most powerful figures in the country, including then-President Barack Obama. Hamilton went on to become an unprecedented worldwide hit and somewhere along the line the joke stopped being funny.
Fear of being ridiculed holds us back. No one wants to look stupid, so we draw within the lines, unwilling to discover what we could do with a blank page. “Millions of people laughing in derision could not hurt us an iota, but we stand in mortal terror of it,” Nightingale says. “Men and women who can prove themselves heroes in great crises tremble before derision.”
In order to succeed, one must push past the laughter, as Bell and Miranda did. They must have faith in their ability and their idea, regardless of what others think. “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Nightingale continues. “We tend to forget that the greatest people, the greatest writers, the greatest teachers were, for the most part, in violent disagreement with their times and the way things were being done.” Failure is all but guaranteed in any walk of life. Risk-takers realise there’s nothing wrong with that. They don’t take it personally and they don’t let it hold them back. Play-it-safers see failure as the end of the world, and “it has cost much…sometimes the price of a laugh has meant the slamming of a door of fame and fortune or even immortality.”
Don’t look before you leap
Nightingale rails against what he refers to as the “winner in the useless information department”, the advice to “look before you leap.” This advice, he says, “is a good recommendation for swimmers and jumpers but as far as life is concerned it’s impossible to do. We can look backward. We can see the results of our past actions and learn from them but we can’t look into the future.”
We can’t know what will happen. We can’t “look”. As such, many choose not to leap at all – and another door closes.
Nightingale states that there are two vital criteria for any “leap”. (1) It should be towards something we want with all our heart. (2) It should be in a field in which we have a good background of experience or at least in an area related to our past experience.
This correlates with his earlier assertion regarding dreamers and stargazers, and the lack of risk in risk. Risk, as he recommends it, is not risky precisely because of these determining factors. One is operating in a field in which they have a genuine understanding and they are applying themselves fully within it. He makes the comparison with a successful group of wartime pilots known as “aces”, thought of as fearless daredevils. They took enormous risks in battle but survived. But while these pilots were certainly offensive in battle, they were not reckless. Nightingale notes that, in fact, they tended to be meticulous about the state of their aircraft and their preparation. They took risks when they needed to because they thought it would give them an advantage. There is an enormous gulf between such an approach and that of a kamikaze.
When to risk?
For those fighter pilots, it was fairly obvious when risk was required: they were up in the air with enemy squadrons approaching; something had to give. In life, things tend to be less straightforward.
Let’s say you’re working a normal 9-5 while starting your own business on the side. How do you know when to commit to the new venture full-time?
Or perhaps you’re pitching a new client. You want them to work with your agency and you have a safe approach to fall back on, something tried and tested, but you also think that pitch has grown a little stale, especially for this slightly more out of the box client. You have an idea for something more left-field, more colourful, that will make you stand out from the competition, but could also make you look a fool. Which way do you go?
Nightingale’s advice for incorporating risk is as follows. “When a situation comes along that involves risk and you don’t know whether to go ahead or hold back, reassess your goals. What are you trying to accomplish? What are you working toward? Will taking this risk, if it works out successfully, help you towards your goals?” If the answer is yes, give it a go.
It could go wrong, of course. You could fail, be met with laughter and derision. But a lot of eventual success stories start that way.