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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. 

Advice from a 73-Year-Old: Go for It!

By Shlomo Maital


 In his New York Times column today, Roger Cohen writes movingly about the carnage of war and battle. He also includes a passage that caught my eye:

     It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or information, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been – these chimera always beckon.

      We are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do.

     I just turned 73. I admit that as a fairly ethical person, I am sometimes haunted by what I did. But also, as Cohen notes, I’m mainly haunted by what I did NOT do, by opportunities missed. Like, becoming an economist rather than a journalist or writer, because it seemed safer.

     I think that if young people consulted me today, the main advice I would give them is to think ahead backward. When faced with a great new opportunity, a scary one, one that involves risk – how do you decide?   Think ahead. Picture yourself a decade ahead, 2025. Imagine that you have taken this opportunity. Picture where you are, what it feels like. Feel the emotion in your gut. Does it feel right? Now, imagine yourself in 2025, and you’ve chosen NOT to take the opportunity, or chance. How does it feel? Do you sense regret? Is that sense of regret a sharp stabbing pain in your gut?  

     Do you agree with Roger Cohen, that we are pained by things we pass by and miss, rather than things we do and experience?  

   You cannot try EVERYthing. But you can try more things, and be more adventurous. Even if you fall on your face, you’ve learned, and grown, and always have the warm feeling that you had the courage to give it a shot, which for me is a big part of self-awareness and self-acceptance. And it’s never too late, even at age 73. Right?


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital