Risk — Euphoria, Terror and Depression

Earlier this year I gave a talk on the topic of Risk for Creative Mornings. If you haven’t been to a Creative Mornings event, each month a global topic is set and speakers get asked to give their view. Here’s a very quick summary of the talk — along with a fairly big personal reveal (watch the last 10 mins of the vid below to cut straight to it) and a way forward in handling something that might be more personally relevant to many of us than we let on.

Risk, Andy Wright, Creative Mornings Sydney

In short, my 5 personal observations on risk are:

#1 Stack as much as you can in your favour
#2 Don’t cave at the first sign of difficulty
#3 Make sure that you don’t fail because you don’t understand
#4 You haven’t failed. You just haven’t succeeded yet
#5 Risk starts with you. Take control. Work out a plan. Don’t look back.

Risk is such a loaded term. It’s very much at the forefront of buzzwords of the moment. “Take risks, fail fast”. In my talk, I wanted to call bullish*t on this early on. Risk used to be (and still is in many companies I’m sure) a reason for not doing something. But as we get over ourselves, it’s increasingly becoming an excuse to do things quickly without much preparation and thought given to the implications. Is it really ok to fail? I asked that of Felix Baumgartner right at the beginning of my talk. Can you fail when you jump from a balloon more than 10,000km across the ground?

No. Risk is important. Risk is important for understanding the magnitude and repercussions of a decision. It doesn’t and shouldn’t stop you. It should just mean that you’ve thought it through and put as much as possible in place (given the time that you have) to avoid failure. Essentially, you’re stacking as many odds as possible in your favour, without compromising the payoff.

One of my favourite modern day commentators and risk takers is Marc Andreessen (and his co-founder in Andreessen Horowitz, Ben Horowitz). In reference to entrepreneurs, startups and business, Marc often talks about the constant feelings of euphoria and terror (Ben references it here: http://www.bhorowitz.com/picking_a_general_partner ). Euphoria and terror aren’t necessarily good for you, but they give you the pinch (or almighty slap) that let you know you’re alive and you’re doing something that could be worthwhile.

Euphoria and terror

No matter what you do, the failure can feel very real (just after the preceding terror). And I do agree with the intent of fail fast — just not when it becomes an excuse. But what’s important is the ability to understand. If you fail because you don’t understand, then you only have yourself to blame. You probably knew it all long. You might have cut a corner, nodded your head without really knowing what was happening, and then that feeling of terror was actually your guilt of knowing that you’d gone too far to go back. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that way before — and certainly more frequently since starting a business.

Bringing it up a few (macro) levels, I think risk is something many businesses are still struggling to understand and embrace in Australia. There seems to be an inherently protectionist attitude running deep through the majority of organisations. Not all of course. Our startup industry is starting to gain traction –probably not a coincidence, given the protectionist vs growth mentality– and the shift will ultimately be generational as more and more students leave university having started and exited a business already.

Risk? What risk?

You see, you can try and protect what you have, but unfortunately, that doesn’t grow it. It reduces it. Because you’re blinkered. Seeing only what is immediately in front of you. Those pesky startups don’t think like that. They’re greedy. They’re constantly looking for things that they don’t have. They grow to survive. Their risk is doing nothing. And that’s exactly the risk that many organisations are taking.

The risk of doing nothing. And dying a slow, painful death.
by https://www.instagram.com/billhope_art/

It was the risk of inaction that I finished my talk with. This year I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. It’s a difficult topic, and even since the talk, I’m undecided as to whether it was a good idea to share this in front of a room of a couple of hundred (mostly) strangers — or not. Some people came up to me after, able to relate. Others, who knew me already found it quite confronting (I think). And I think this is the point. The risk is that issues like this aren’t confronted.

Maybe because of my confession (that’s kind of what it felt like) others feel like they can talk about their own depression or anxiety. I’ve spoken with people who have openly told me about how they have a similar challenge. But they also talk about it like something they’ve lived with for some time. It seems to come and go (I understand that now). It has certain triggers, but they’re hard to avoid. Some people get help and are open about it. Some perhaps not…how would I know? I know a couple of people who openly share on Facebook and face it head on.

I think it’s probably far more prevalent (especially in our industry) than we realise. And we probably do way too little to recognise, understand and do something about it. For those that grapple with it, it’s a big ask to admit it to an employer. For an employer, it’s also tough. For me, stuck in both camps, there’s no easy way out. Just because you have it, doesn’t make it easier to help someone else with it — as much as I thought it might be. There’s no readily available guidebook or help.

It’s my job to come up with solutions for problems like this — at least I like to think so. I can do it for clients, I should be able to do it for my team, and hell, I started a business called ‘For The People’. I don’t think the answer lies in therapy, forums, education or the internet. I mean they all exist and I feel like as soon as I dive into them I’ve entered another world (ok, maybe that’s a part of my problem). And there are also some great people trying new approaches in this area (like Sanctus with classes). But maybe the answer isn’t in trying to exterminate it. Maybe it’s just in helping us all recognise it. Let me explain…

When someone knows you have this problem (disease, condition, illness?) they will frequently ask you (because they care) “how are you feeling?” I don’t know about you, but this is a terrifying experience. It just jumps straight to the point.

No foreplay, no warning, just get your feelings out. I can’t do that. I need to be warmed up, feel at ease. I’ve also had advice about getting home, or into work, and to just abandon how I’m feeling. I’ve tried it.

It works — up until the point that something sets you off and the build up of suppressed depression and anxiety bursts through as if it had just been incubated to be all the more powerful when released.

As a user (sorry, work speak) I just wish there was a way that I could emit a signal. Something that could give a subtle (not awkward) heads up to those around me, with how I’m doing right now — perhaps not dissimilar to the way some animals communicate. Maybe it even does it for me. We have so much hardware, software and data or pattern recognition systems at our fingertips right now, why couldn’t it? Temperature and blood pressure are obvious datapoints (or breathing patterns used by Spire, just a shame it’s another gadget to carry), but coupled with geodata, proximity data, calendar / meeting data couldn’t I start to build a tool that could recognise, record and perhaps predict not only how I’m feeling, but how I might feel later on today or tomorrow morning? Or when I have a meeting with a certain someone in a certain place? I think the opportunity is to develop a tool that doesn’t put all the onus on the person with the problem, but that finds a balance. A tool where I can better predict what’s coming (and prepare myself) but also give a subtle heads up to those around me — (to prepare them) and make life easier for all of us.

In fact. I think I’m onto something. I fancy having a crack at this. If you do as well, send me a message, email, letter — all of the usual contact methods are below.

Let’s see if we can’t make the world a better place.

205, Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills, NSW, Australia.

A special thanks to those who helped in giving me the courage to do this and in giving feedback on my talk / post. You know how you are…