Somewhat of a strange title, but it’s been an interesting journey to understand that I do take risks and to realize that taking risks isn’t bad. I’ll start at the middle of the story. A few months back I let the PASS Board know that I was cancelling a project and calling it a failure (the Standard). Not fun, but the right thing to do at that point. I’m not accustomed to failing, though I believe that failing is in and of itself not a bad thing. My friend Bill Graziano made a comment (well intended and on target) that because I was the risk taker in the group that they expected a few failures, but also more wins. I was taken aback. For me, risk taking was the equivalent of day trading, a lot of risk for a lot of reward, or loss.
Gave me something to think about. As I thought about who I am and the choices I’ve made, I never considered them to be real risks. I took a demotion at one point to get a job I wanted, and I left a stable job to start a new business, but I never felt that I was betting the mortgage. More importantly, and hopefully I can say this without seeming to be arrogant, I was betting on me. I was willing to work hard to make something work, and that willingness to work has allowed me to succeed when others wouldn’t. Not because I was smarter, just willing to work harder. Yet, by the standards of most people, those are risks. Not invest your savings in lotto tickets risk, but risk of at least discomfort if not some financial pain.
Another example of a risk I took is SQLSaturday. When I first started talking about building a national network of events, few thought it would work for all manner of reasons. I didn’t have a detailed study to base it on, just the knowledge that there had been some success around Code Camps and a big vacuum in SQL Server for knowledge sharing at the local level. When you start talking about doing something nationally that is beyond your control there is risk, with the main risk a somewhat visible failure. I couldn’t guarantee success, but I didn’t think it would fail either. In hindsight I’m lucky enough to have a reality that maps pretty closely with the original vision, but some of that is luck. I thought the risk was worth the reward, but I can’t show you the calculation – experience + intuition is all I have, and plenty of days that doesn’t seem like enough!
What I’ve realized is that I’m comfortable with a degree of risk beyond most people, yet to me it rarely feels stressful. I’ve weighed the pros and cons, and then added to that what if any ability I have to tip the balance if needed. I’m also comfortable beyond most with failing. I don’t like to fail, not at all. But I know the difference between failing at something that shouldn’t have failed and something that was on the edge to start with. For me it’s been an important epiphany, giving me a better view of who I am and reminding me that not everyone.
As a stereotype, we in the data business are not risk takers. We’re pretty risk averse, it’s usually what our business and the potential consequences require. Yet sometimes it feels like we’ve moved from risk averse to risk nothing, and without risk the upside is as limited as the downside. We can’t start taking huge risks at work, but maybe we should take some smaller ones, and just make sure we don’t take too many risks at once. Upgrade one server to SQL 2008 R2 after limited app testing, not all of the servers at once!
On the personal and career side though, I really believe you can’t rise to the top without taking risks and learning to fail. Without those you can’t drive a business forward, and without them you won’t let anyone working for you take any risks either, which tends to drive away the brightest and most creative. Something to think about.