Kate Tojeiro, one of ASK’s Associates (and whose blog you can read online), recently sent us an article called “Risk is the currency of progress”. It’s a great example of a strapline for our times – Chris Evans made it the title of his Breakfast Show on 11 January, so the phrase is ‘in the air’. Kate was referring to many things – the bravery and charitable efforts of Dakar Team GB, the new experiences in the broadest sense that we can enjoy when we take ‘the leap’, but also “new territories, products, people, ideas, experiences, luck… profits.”

I understand the idea of the risk/reward principle, but I tend to see it as a mindset, a particular lens for viewing life through, or something closer to the rules of a particular game. A game, moreover, often played by people who think of themselves as ‘players’ and see their lives in terms of ‘winning’. Losing is not an option, and all that. It often comes – and no offence is meant to Kate here – with a keen sense of heroics and derring-do.

Although unbuckling might feel appropriate, swashbuckling tends to figure – at the very least metaphorically, so I couldn’t help chuckle when I googled ‘swashbuckling’ and Wikipaedia’s opening line quickly equated it with “rough, noisy and boastful swordsmen”. I know we’ve moved on a bit from rescuing damsels in distress, and nowadays the maidens have an equal right to bear arms. But if my honour – or even my petticoats – were in danger, I’d be tempted to hold for being ‘rescued’ by someone a bit more … well, admirable.

But I also get the nagging sense that most talk and thought about ‘risk and reward’ – despite the talk of journeys, embracing mindsets and the rest – is about the bottom-line: money. We measure success in pounds and pence, and the risk is in losing the coins we have rather than filling our purses with more of them. Which is fine, although we can be oddly coy about being quite that explicit. (“The first rule of Fight Club”, perhaps?)

And I’m one of those people who, looking at the situation, can’t help but think “But …”. It’s not just that the daily news has been rather heavily laden lately with examples where the idea of ‘risk and reward’ looks a bit flaky in the light of day. (As the topic is being done to death so widely, let’s just say ‘bankers’ and ‘bonuses’ and move on.) It’s also that the ‘when we say reward, we mean remuneration’ line of unspoken thinking is more complicated and problematic than success = money. And that voices are being raised that are saying that they think the risk/reward mechanism is malfunctioning. Here, for example, is Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle last Sunday:

Romney is right: Free enterprise is on trial. But he’s wrong about the question at issue. It’s not whether America will continue to reward risk-taking. It’s whether an economic system can survive when the real risks are so disconnected from the rewards.

Americans are starting to feel the game is rigged against them, which may be why Newt Gingrich’s bombastic attacks on “elites” are gaining traction. Workers feel cynical when those at the top get giant rewards no matter how badly they screw up, while the rest of us get screwed no matter how hard we work.”

If we want – maybe even need – people to take risks to keep progress going (and let’s leave the other cans of worms closed for now), we need to make sure the reward mechanism works. I don’t particularly mind ‘risk and reward’ being a cliché, but clichés do need to be essentially true. I agree wholeheartedly with Kate that ‘negative experiences’ can all too often stand in our way: that’s sad – but surmountable – when what we need to tackle is our own emotional and psychological reaction. But when the negative experience is a symptom of something systemic outside ourselves, ‘sad’ is far too weak an adjective. The very mechanism that’s supposed to be motivating us can be the very one that stops us acting if it sends the wrong messages, or delivers the wrong experiences. If risk and reward is going to be a workable equation, the two sides of the equation need to demonstrate balance.

Despite which, do we wrestle with the idea of reward in a broader sense – beyond remuneration or status – more than with the idea of risk? For many people, viewed through the traditional lens, the medium-term prospect is increased risk and static reward. Everyone needs a way forward, but that might – in our current circumstance – mean some mental adjustment. Which might include a model of risk and reward that’s a little broader, a little more flexible, a little more adjusted to the notion of variety. The idea of the EVP (Employee Value Proposition) looks beyond pay and bonuses to identify the other ‘rewards’ that matter and motivate, but I don’t see much activity that looks at whether the risk side of the equation could merit a bit of tweaking too.

What motivates each of us is personal and individual: my reward might not be yours. And, although we have different appetites for risk in its broadest sense, we also have different ideas of what we might risk and what we might not. Career change, for example, would strike some of us as epic folly, but if your idea of reward is centred on satisfaction and your day having meaning, the possible financial risk of change – most people who move sideways see their bank balance move downwards – might be outweighed by the personal reward of their new career. (And the satisfaction of having had the courage to make the leap.) Funny how the standard way of describing such a move uses such negative language: downsizing, jacking it all in …

I’m not a born desecrator of traditions, but I’d rather place my faith in what could be than in sticking with what is (or retreating to what was). So I can’t help but wonder if the thing we most need to take a risk with is risk itself – or at least our model of it. Any working life – indeed, any life – has crossroads or forks in the road where we face dilemmas and conundrums as well as opportunities. Till we get there, any road is one less travelled for us, and we have to decide how to choose between Road to Nowhere or Highway to Hell.

As well as allegedly giving us reasons to doubt or hesitate, age and experience are also supposed to give us wisdom and a broader selection of yardsticks to measure things with. If 2012 is a year where you are planning on making a Big Leap – and what else is a leap year for? – don’t just think about frying pans and fires: think about what encourages you to see them as frying pans and fires. A narrow vision has another name: a tunnel.

I’ll leave you with two very different quotes. The first is from an obscure late 70s Anglo-Finnish band (Wigwam), where the ambiguous tone has always left me feeling that ‘destitute’ might mean more than an accountant’s interpretation:

In his thread-bare outfit tearing through the parking-lot,
dodging his limbs that kick like ancient cannon.
Toting hardware just to shoot his way out of this plot
that holds him to the wheels that Adam ran on.
They say you must assemble your ensemble by detail
or else end up as destitute as Randolph.”

The second is from a classic of literature – EM Forster’s A Room With A View – and subtley makes a rather good point about taking the risk of having a wider outlook:

We residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little. Handed about like parcels from Venice to Florence to Rome, unconscious of anything outside Baedeker, anxious to get done and go on elsewhere. I abhor Baedeker. I’d fling every copy in the Arno.”

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