How to Take (Smart) Risks

Sometimes taking a chance on something new is the smartest move.


We strive to build lives for ourselves that are safe and secure, but the fact is that life itself is inherently risky. You can’t completely avoid risk. What’s more, sometimes taking a chance on something new is the smartest move. Moving to a new city, going back to school, changing careers, quitting your job to start your own business—these may be the best decisions we will ever make. Indeed, sticking with a so-called “secure” status quo can in the long run be riskier than taking an intelligent risk.

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However, even after you’ve decided that said risk is the best way to go, you may still hesitate. Risk involves change and change is always stressful, if not downright scary. Here are a few ways to tackle risk-taking:

Name the fear. Really identify exactly what it is that’s scaring you. You can’t deal with an issue if you don’t have a clear idea of what the issue really is.

Break it down. A major life step—going back to school, changing careers—can seem overwhelming. Breaking down the process into its component steps makes it seem less huge, and may take some of the fear away.

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Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about this new job/city/school/life. However, at the same time, know that you will never know--and don’t need to know--all the facts. Beware of getting bogged down in the research phase!

Start small. There’s nothing wrong with testing the waters before jumping in. If you want to start a new business, consider holding on to your day job and working on it part time for a while. If you want to enter a new and unfamiliar field, try volunteering in that field first. Get a taste for what it’s like.

Have a fallback. Think through what you would do if you crash and burn. If what you thought you wanted to do now feels very wrong. How would you back out of this process? Knowing you have a Plan B can help you sleep at night.

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Get some risk buddies. Hang out with bold, courageous, positive people who’ve taken successful risks in their own lives and who support your goals. Talk with them. Observe them. How did they do it?

Embrace fear. Fear is actually a sign that you’re moving forward. Train yourself to welcome fear as a sign that you’re making progress toward your goal.

Assemble your ingredients. List the things you need to take the risk (capital, training/certifications, a mentor) and start to take the steps to acquire them.

Expect setbacks. Accept from the start that your first effort will probably not be perfect. Some things will go wrong. Make course corrections as necessary. Be flexible. Learn from your failures. Don’t give up too soon.

Just do it. If you wait until everything is perfect, you may well never take this step. At one point you’re going to have to stop preparing, planning, and thinking. And start acting.

Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at


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