August 29th, 2017
The Risktaker's Paradox
The only thing worse than feeling hopeless is doing it for the first time.
We avoid venturing into the unknown because by definition, we don’t know what’ll happen there.
But the thing is, we never know what’ll happen, even when we think we do.
The known is just as unknown, and with the same number of uncontrolled variables. There’s an inherent risk in every decision we make, and gauging its level of extremity is a wildly inexact science.
So without any reliable way to gauge risk, we listen to our lizard brain. We determine what to do based on how far an action deviates from the social norm. We stay as close to normal as possible.
I’ll give you an example. Skydiving is risky, right? It’s not a normal behavior. Ignore the statistics. Nevermind the fact that you’re far more likely to die in a car accident this year than you are from jumping out of a plane, even if you jumped on a regular basis.
Since day one, we’ve all been trained to avoid risk whenever possible and be careful no matter what."
Okay, that’s one extreme example. Here’s one that’s more relatable.
You’re at work. You’re in charge of getting a high-budget piece of marketing done because the Latest Widget isn’t selling as much as the Lastest Competing Widget.
By virtue of the scope of investment, all the important eyes will be watching. It’s on you if it works, and it’s on you if it doesn’t. So you come up with a plan: find a way to spend those dollars in a responsible way where results are guaranteed. And if you fall short, make sure you have someone else to blame. Make sure you can say something like the market conditions weren’t right, the weather ruined it, the agency sabotaged it or the news cycle dwarfed our efforts when a more impactful story came along.
The truth is, you failed because you were scared.
You compromised. You changed the language to be simpler, for fear someone might misunderstand. You had the designer create something familiar — something that feels like you’ve seen it before — because anything new is scary, and with so much on the line, we can’t afford scary. And we surely can’t afford to roll the dice. Not now. Not when it’s my neck under the guillotine.
This flawed line of logic flowed rapidly through the entire project like a virus through veins. Every step of the way, you made decisions from a place of weakness; what’s the option that’s least likely to go wrong?
Your result is a bonafide, verified, calculated pile of gray matter with zero chance of delighting one single human being.
Your expensive pile of nothing becomes another page to flip through, another ad to block in your browser, another video no one will watch. Because you did all you could to do nothing out of the ordinary, and the only thing people seek out is the extraordinary.
Paradoxically, by systematically avoiding risk, you end up taking a greater one.
It happens more often than not. In fact, billions of dollars are spent every year on creating strategic, bland nothings. And because the market for creating boring is so strong, throngs of agencies are built on cooking up bowls of Boring Soup. Hell, I’ve even worked at a few.
So, what’s the solution? Let me put it delicately because I don’t want to offend anyone: grow some (metaphorical) balls.
“Just do something cool,” isn’t the best strategy in the world, but it sure as hell beats most of what’s already out there. So it’s a pretty good place to start.
By being brave, embracing the excitement of making something new and attacking risk with vigor, you’re actually taking on less risk than if you did the expected.
People need you to meet them halfway. If they take time out of their day to visit your site, watch your video or interact with your widget, make sure they get something memorable in return. Something unexpected. Something cool.
Otherwise, you’ll end up being a tiny, overlooked footnote. You’ll find a home in that all-too-familiar territory you tried so hard to avoid.
You’ll end up in the unknown.
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