A few weeks ago, I received an interesting Tweet responding to a piece I wrote about heightened risk-aversion among those with many options: “It’s the result of what’s taught to us in the first twenty years of our lives. Risk-taking is squeezed out of us,” Alex Welsh Tweeted. He continued: “It was especially strong in the transition between high school to college when I was choosing a major.” I asked Alex if he would be willing to write a reflection on his own historical timeline of risk-aversion and fear of failure for this blog. And, he agreed. Below is Alex’s rendition of how and when his dreams became safe, and what he did about it.
“In retrospect, I can see a stark reversal taking place over the course of my educational career. When I was in elementary school, I remember my classmates’ desires to become something they considered remarkable: astronauts, firefighters, and the like. I wanted to work at Lego designing new Lego sets because I thought the ones that existed then were too simple. I knew that I could do anything that I wanted, if I put my mind to it. Unfortunately, that stage of inspirational bliss did not last forever.
When high school came, we no longer had such high hopes for fantastic careers. I noticed a very subtle shift in what my teachers and parents were telling me. Of course I could do whatever I wanted, as long as it was safe and in high demand. With that in mind, I thought about being an architect because I liked designing new buildings. When I started looking at colleges, I thought about chemical engineering because I excelled in science. Finally, I settled on business because I wanted to work with people.
So much for working at Lego.
Somewhere along the line, my desire for risk-taking and adventure was nearly ground out of me, and I took the safe route into business school. I knew that in business school I was a shoe-in. I got the top scholarship and aced my classes. I went on networking trips and was in the Select Leader Development Program. Even after all that, though, I was bored out of my mind.
I told myself that it would get better when I started taking classes in my major. It wasn’t. Finally, half way through my second year, I came to the end of myself. I was going insane and I hated every class I was taking. Something had to change.
As I reflected on where I was, I had an epiphany. The control I have had over my education was not a good thing. It meant that I was never satisfied or surprised with the outcome. If I wanted to be in a work environment where I thrived, I would need to be constantly challenged. I needed something for which I could give my all. I needed to stop playing it safe.
Now that I am finished with my formal education, I have realized several things:
- In school, I had been conditioned to expect predictable results based on the amount of effort I put forth. I was stagnant because I wasn’t taking risks.
- I learned I could control the outcome of my performance, so that became my goal. I would put forth only the effort necessary to get an A or A-, which was satisfactory to me. Essentially, I held my required schooling at bay with as little energy as possible while searching with all my remaining energy to find something that would actually engage me.
Slowly, I began to take my education into my own hands. I began to seek out knowledge that I wasn’t getting in the classroom. Instead of reading textbooks full of facts I could find online, I read books like Linchpin by Seth Godin and A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. I began exposing myself to people that made a lifestyle out of taking risks based on their passion. And, beginning with my third year, I left the business school and started to study video game design, where I could put everything I had into creating something meaningful. Now I am starting a career as a game producer in an incredibly competitive field where I take risks daily, and I feel energized, alive!
When I think about the way I was taught, I completely understand the rationale that drove my teachers and parents. They wanted to see me succeed, which in their minds meant having financial security in a “respectable” field. Working at Lego wouldn’t work because it wasn’t very likely that I would succeed, which would mean that they had failed, too. Their fear became my fear, and it held me back.
Now that I have broken that fear, I see a few things more clearly:
- Without risk, my life was predictable, boring, and unsatisfying
- Taking risks is important, but they have to be the right risks
- The right risks are driven by passion and tempered by wisdom
I have discovered that risk-taking is a lifestyle that leads to a very interesting, full life. Fear of failure is debilitating, but it’s rarely based on reality. Even the times when I don’t get to where I planned to go, I always find myself closer to something else new and exciting.
What is keeping you from taking the right risks?”
Alex Welsh is a video game producer and storyteller. He is a recent graduate from Ohio University, where he studied game design and business. Now he is jump-starting his career as a producer and writing for his blog. Find him at AlexWelsh.me or @alexswelsh.
Envision | Embody | Enact
Priya Parker is a visioner, conflict mediator and strategist. She works with organizations and leaders to zero in on their core purpose and build out smarter strategies. Drawing on ten years of work in government, social enterprise and Track II diplomacy in the United States, India and the Middle East, Priya designs visioning and innovation labs that help organizations grow from the root.