Ask any successful entrepreneur what it takes to be successful and he or she will invariably say “You have to take risks.” This, without any doubt, is true. So true, in fact, that it’s practically a truism. Safe roads rarely lead to riches.
Unfortunately, what a lot of wannabe big-shots don’t quite grasp about risk taking is that there is invariably a big downside to taking risks. Many people will find it surprising that risky roads are similar to safe roads in the sense that, despite promises to the contrary, risky roads also rarely lead to riches. More often than not, they lead to ruin.
But this rather unpalatable reality seems to be ignored by the entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, etc. who are willing to put it all on the line to make their dreams of fame and fortune come true. We don’t seem to hear much about the would-be entrepreneurs who took big risks and lost. Unlike the winners, they don’t adorn the cover of Forbes Magazine or become Time’s Man/Woman of the year. But they are legion, and they surround us day and night.
They are the slowly greying waiters who want to be actors, dancers, singers or comedians. They are the computer store nerds whose Youtube gaming channels have 3million subscribers but barely produce enough ad revenue to pay for a handful of computer peripherals every now and again. They are the musicians who entertain us in the subway, the chefs who prepare our Caesar salads for minimum wage at the bistros they lost their life savings getting off the ground.
In the tech world, if the losers are skilled enough and well-networked, they might manage to procure relatively soft landings. Perhaps they’ll toil away as wage-slaves at companies owned by their competitors, working 100 hour weeks to pay off the debts they racked up while taking risks in pursuit of their own doomed ventures. If they were hustlers of the “too smart by half” variety, the work they find might be at the penitentiary to which they’ve been sentenced for whatever white-collar crime didn’t quite turn out as planned. If their mountainous debts were owed to the wrong people, they might even have the chance to be fitted for a brand new pair of cement boots prior taking their first and final swim in the Hudson River.
These “losers” are not showered with praise in the business pages. They don’t win oscars. They don’t sit in judgement of lesser morals on Dragons’s Den or other business shows. They’re seldom even covered in MBA-style case studies. Most often, they just fall into obscurity. Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the publicity accrues to the very small percentage of winners whose unbalanced risk-taking happened to pay off.
What is the difference between the winners and the losers? Maybe the winners are just that much more driven. Or maybe they possess just a hair more aptitude. Maybe these tiny differences added up to put them just half a step ahead at a crucial juncture, the way the winner of the 100m dash crosses the finish line a fraction of a second ahead of the silver and bronze medalists… and the also-ran who came in fourth and doesn’t even get to stand on the podium.
Looking at the world of business and entertainment — and the business of entertainment — I posit that the difference between the winners (very few) and the losers (very many) often involves these two factors in some way. But this world is not a perfect meritocracy. In many ways it is not a meritocracy at all. In many cases, the arbiter between success and failure is pure, dumb luck.
An actress lands her breakout role because she had freckles and her closest competitor didn’t. A brilliant actor does’t get cast because he’s too tall beside the Bankable Star to whom he plays the sidekick. A cartoonist is offered a major syndication deal because the man who rejected his strip dies of a heart attack and his assistant, who happens to get the off-beat humor takes over (read Scott Adams’ book about how Dilbert hit the big time).
I’m not saying hard work and raw talent have nothing to do with it. Some wannabes are highly motivated, some are super-talented and others are both. But those two attributes, even if they exist in the same person, are only pre-conditions which, in the absence of that ever-elusive lightning strike, amount to nothing but wasted effort and broken dreams.
At the risk of belaboring my point, I want give one example of mega-success and theorize as to the many ways it might not have come about. Take, JK Rowling, who everybody knows is an amazingly talented author. She’s also got golden horseshoes up her butt. Why do I say that? Think about all the things that could have happened to derail her success and didn’t, and I’m talking about things totally beyond her control. Suppose, for example, that her publisher had acquired her first novel, then simply sat on it, deciding that the timing wasn’t right. Or maybe there were just too many competing titles in that genre, when it was released and it just failed to get the lift that it did in real life. Or suppose that, as so often happens, there had been a top-down change of strategy at the publisher just before her first book was acquired and, instead of accepting it, they’d written back and said “Thanks but no thanks.” Okay, in that case maybe she would have found another publisher, but maybe that publisher would have decided on a less effective marketing strategy, or lacked the distribution networks or marketing power of Bloomsbury. Maybe she would have signed with some small press that managed to sell 700 copies, then let the book go out of print. She might still have been considered a “success” by some measures. After all, just getting published in itself is a huge success statistically. My point is this; except for whatever turns of fate led to the great success story we all know so well, JK Rowling might have ended up among the legions of super-talented and ridiculously hardworking authors who’ve never managed to get taken seriously by a publishing house.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading some absolutely mind-blowing books by brilliant authors (some in late middle age) who, sadly, remain unpublished to this day. Some of them are self-published and have sold perhaps a few dozen copies. These authors are at least as talented and perhaps even harder working that JK Rowling. Most of them have invested years of their lives scribbling in solitude, shunning parties and giving up vacations so they can pay out of pocket for editors and cover designers. They’ve passed up on a great deal of what life has to offer so they can get the work done, all on the off chance that they might one day get noticed.
These authors won’t likely experience the worst outcomes. The won’t go to prison or wear cement boots. But few, if any, will earn enough from book sales to pay back even their out-of-pocket costs, let alone make the time they’d invested worth while from a financial perspective. If the countless hours they invested in writing can be considered their own reward, great, but for most people, they just aren’t. They represent time away from family, friends and self that just can’t be made up for.
Yes, yes, I know. Where would literature/art/science/business etc. be if everybody just threw up their hands and asked “What are the odds?” The lesson here, for people who have read this far, is that there is a real downside to “risking everything” the way so many successful people have done. In your risk/reward calculations, think carefully about all the real and valuable experiences you might be giving up for a fleeting shot at that coveted victory lap, experiences you won’t get back even if you succeed.
Don’t be depressed when you read this. Unless you’re really under the gun for a deadline, take a break from whatever world-changing project you’re working on and go play with your cat, hug your child, take a walk, read a book just for fun or go for a walk in the park. And while you’re doing these things, smile as you think about the purrs you wouldn’t have felt, the laugher you wouldn’t have heard, the rainbow you wouldn’t have seen had followed the advice of “successful” people and remained disciplined, maintained a “laser-like focus”… and wasted such valuable moments in the pursuit of some far off pipe-dream.
Check out my website at http://www.psgrieve.com