Defining Risk

What comes to mind when you think of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken?

Did you come to regret taking any of them?

When I consider these questions, there have been very few, if any, downsides to the risks that come to mind. Perhaps this says I’m not much of a true risk taker. However, I think it says that perhaps my real problem has been not taking enough risks, or waiting too long to jump off the perceived cliff that was in front of me.



I read an article recently that said a good exercise is to define any commonly used term or process you face regularly. It’s harder than you may think to really define something well. (The article I read focused on the term “stupid” and I highly recommend reading it.) I have decided to take do this exercise with the word “risk” and my definition perhaps will change your answers to the questions above, or provide you with some useful insights.

Let’s start with the Merriam-Webster definition:

risk noun
\ ˈrisk \
Definition of risk (Entry 1 of 2)
1 : possibility of loss or injury : PERIL
2 : someone or something that creates or suggests a hazard
3a : the chance of loss or the perils to the subject matter of an insurance contract
also : the degree of probability of such loss
b : a person or thing that is a specified hazard to an insurer
c : an insurance hazard from a specified cause or source
war risk
4 : the chance that an investment (such as a stock or commodity) will lose value
at risk
: in a state or condition marked by a high level of risk or susceptibility
patients at risk of infection

risk verb
risked; risking; risks
Definition of risk (Entry 2 of 2)
transitive verb

1 : to expose to hazard or danger
risked her life
2 : to incur the risk or danger of
risked breaking his neck

Merriam-Webster.com

I don’t think these definitions are what I’m trying to describe when I use the word risk. The lexicon above just doesn’t fit. Risk means something much more nuanced to me. So much so, that I have indeed spent several days thinking about this word. Perhaps my experiences have shaped my definition and focus as I think the word risk applies to one’s life choices, and that it has to be related to a fear.

I have come to settle upon this simpler definition:

Risk – Taking a chance that could end in failure.


Risk and failure are tied together. Thinking of risk in this more simplistic way helps me to understand the need to take a risk. Risk taking is associated with learning, too With my background in education, I know that there can be no learning without failure.

In fact, we learn more through failure than we do from success alone.

We tend to stop and do analysis about failures more often, and more honestly, than we do with our successes. My canoe coach would always ask me what I learned when I lost a race. (Sometimes I felt I was learning too much in some of these races.) Nearly all outcomes we deem successes were reached only after multiple failures.

I really love to learn, which should also mean I’ve experienced a great many failures. So, what prevents me from taking a risk? Is it fear of failure?
Fear of showing what hasn’t yet been learned?

Being open to being wrong and reminding myself that failure is where the learning begins is what will permit me to be open to learning again, and open to the risk of failure. When I see all of my life choices as true learning opportunities, failure is an expected by product. Risks seems smaller in this light.

The risks that fall outside of my simplified definition are fewer and are the ones that maybe fit the Merriam-Webster’s definition where my life or health could be in danger. The risk I took racing an outrigger during a winter storm would be an example of such a risk. (I will never do that again.) However, when it comes to learning, I want to embrace risk taking more.

Does this hold true for you, too?

Postscript:
What do we want from our leadership and bosses? I want a leader willing to take risks and who will also accept my failures. A great Medium article on leadership had this quote:

 A team who believes their leader has their back will be better performers, take reasonable, calculated risk that is often key to taking the team’s work forward, will return the favour when a leader needs them most.

Elizabeth Shassere, “This is what fear in leadership looks like”

Let’s support learning and the need to fail also from our peers.

Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

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