A senior colleague gave me some great advice this week. He sent me an opportunity that was well out of my reach, and suggested I go for it. I checked if he had sent it to me by accident. “Did you mean someone else?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “It was definitely you I was thinking of.” He then went on to explain that in his experience going for it, even when you don’t have a chance, can help you learn a lot and get your name out there.

In other words, he challenged me with the same challenge I shared earlier this week:

“What do you have to lose?

What do you have to gain?”

Great advice! Why is it so hard to take? I wrote a lot about fear in Tuesday’s post on risk taking, and today I’d like to share three tips for looking after yourself in the face of those scary opportunities.

Tip 1: Notice the Opportunity

I think the first step to taking wise risks professionally is to notice opportunities in the first place. Often at work, we are productive with the things that carry the most pressure, the most accountability and the greatest urgency, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have ideas and dreams that don’t fit into those boxes. The dreams just seem so far out of reach and so overwhelming. One of the practices I have started doing is writing those ideas down and saying them out loud to trusted friends.

“Wouldn’t it be great if…?”

“I’d love to…”

“I wonder if it would be good to…”

“I wish we could…”

If these kinds of thoughts come into your head regularly, it would be easy to either dismiss them as unrealistic, or to think that if you don’t dismiss them you need to actively pursue them (cue stress). Instead, try to simply acknowledge them. Write them down, and, with trusted people, talk about them. This does five things.

  • Firstly, it allows you to sift. Ideas that you don’t really care about will fade, while those that you’re passionate about come more and more into focus.
  • Secondly, it helps your brain adjust to the big ideas – the more familiar an idea becomes, the less crazy it seems.
  • Thirdly, it allows the ideas to develop and come into focus, especially if you talk to others about them.
  • Fourthly, it puts just a little pressure on them. It’s quite hard to keep acknowledging that you want something without eventually getting to the point where you are determined to do something about it. It begins to bring those grand ideas a little closer.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, acknowledging your ideas means that when an opportunity comes up which coincides with a great idea, you will notice it.

Tip 2: Have an Alternative

I learned this from Richard Bolles (2013) of What Colour is Your Parachute fame, and it’s a goody. Basically, wherever possible, give yourself at least two options.

If you’re applying for a promotion, have an exciting plan for what job you’ll apply for if you don’t get the promotion.

If you’re asking a senior member of staff for advice, know who you will ask next if they say no.

If you’re submitting an article for publication, make sure you’ve done the research for the magazine you’ll submit to if this one says no.

If you’re applying for a grant, know which grant you’ll apply for next if this one rejects your proposal.

If you DO get rejected, then before you approach your alternative, line up your next alternative so you’ve always got two options on the table. Always have an alternative. What does this do for you? Among other things,

  • it makes it easier to take the risk in the first place when you know you’ve got an alternative
  • it stops you hitting a dead end – you can always pivot…and you’re ready to pivot
  • it helps you stay positive when things go wrong, preventing that funk of inertia that rejection can otherwise foster
  • it prevents negative experiences from subconsciously training you not to take risks in the future

Tip 3: Your Antidote to Risk Taking at Work is Your Life Outside of Work

When you go hiking in an area with deadly snakes, you want to know where the nearest city with an anti-venom is. When you hike out beyond your comfort zone at work, you also run the risk of getting bitten, so it’s a good idea to have your antidote lined up in advance. It’s definitely really important to have supportive relationships at work, but if all of your connections, all of your sense of purpose and all of your sense of personal value are found within work, then work becomes a really tough environment to take risks in – you’ve simply got too much to lose. Also, sometimes people in work are too close to the action to really be able to give you the antidote to a particularly poisonous work bite.

A handful of loving, supportive relationships outside of work make all the difference. These are the people that can help you get things back in the perspective. These are the people that can remind you that you are loved, even if you fall flat on your face. These are the people that can help you brainstorm your way forward. These are the people that can remind you of your alternatives. These people are your safe place to run.

In other words, it’s just easier to be brave at work when you’ve got ice cream and laughter to come home to.

I don’t think that work should all be risk-taking, but I do think that there are too often great opportunities left not taken, because we don’t know how to look after ourselves in the face of fear.

Now? It’s Bank Holiday weekend. Rest well, friends. Rest, reflect and dream, and may we all come back refreshed and raring to go in whatever arena we’re called to.

Bolles, R. (2013) What Colour Is Your Parachute? Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. – The latest edition is available here.

Goins, J. (2015) The Art of Work. Thomas Nelson. Available here. Chapter 5 is all about “Pivot Points.” I haven’t actually read the book yet, but the (free) accompanying podcast is brilliant.

Picture by Pixabay user Jaeyeon Lim