Taking Risks? Or Seizing Opportunities?

By Shlomo Maital

   “Take calculated risks.” That was what General George Patton said – and then, raced across France with his armored division, after Normandy, often well ahead of his supply lines, and entered Germany with his Third Army at the close of WWII.

     That mad dash across France was heavily criticized by his commanding officers. But it destabilized enemy forces and ultimately proved itself.

     Today’s New York Times op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks, who heads the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, reinforces Patton’s advice.   He cites research by U. of Chicago economist Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics). Levitt, whose research is brilliant and unconventional, found thousands of people about to make important decisions. They agreed to make the decision with a coin flip. Heads, yes, go ahead! tails, no, don’t risk it!.

   Levitt found that many more people were likely to “go ahead and do it, affirmatively” when left to chance, then if they decided on their own. And astonishingly, six months later, the average ‘heads’ person (yes, do it!) was happier than the average ‘tails’ person (play it safe).

   Brooks cites evidence that those under 30 are far less willing to relocate for job opportunities, or to start their own business, then the older generations. There is diminishing ‘frontier spirit’ and rising paranoia about taking big leaps. They are missing a great deal in life, as a result.

     So what does this mean for us decision-makers?   It’s a matter of semantics.   “Take risks”, even calculated ones, sounds…well, risky. But how about “seize opportunities!”  

       Life is always tossing opportunities before us. Seize them. If they work out, great. If they don’t, applaud yourself for being bold enough to give it a shot.   Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind. So – prepare your mind just to SEE opportunities – if you’re too cautious and prudent, you won’t even see them. And then, practice grabbing those opportunities.  

       And don’t be afraid if you feel you lack the skills and knowledge the opportunity requires. You’ll acquire them. That’s a side benefit of ‘seize opportunities’ – the more you do it, the better you get at it.

       I was once approached by someone who wanted to fund research on a key social problem. Everyone else had turned him down. And I wasn’t much interested. But – I decided to go for it. The result: A radical systemic plan that could bail Israel, and other countries, out of a much-ignored pension crisis. I gained new knowledge, and more important, new-found relevance.

       I know the old cliché about risks being opportunities. It is a cliché – but it’s also true. The next time opportunity knocks, answer the door. You never know what adventure might present itself. 

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