The other day I was talking with a Professor friend (Mark B.) who teaches (of all things) Engineering at University of California Irvine. We got on the subject about risk-taking and how there are so many books and articles written recently on this topic; how organizations and especially employees are not good at taking risk. Most of the books and articles are directed at business disciplines like project management and implementation, decision-making, cost-cutting, efficiency, sales and marketing tactics, etc. Mark described his belief that the main reason employees/people are not good at risk-taking is because people have been conditioned since childhood to “play it safe”.

Mark elaborated…at the start of every semester, he gives his students “the talk”. The talk has to do with un-brainwashing them from 19 years of SAFE. Mark goes on to describe how we/society raise kids to follow direction, be rewarded for completing exactly what they’re told, that only good grades matter, and as one commercial put it — “stay within the lines”. We don’t allow our kids to explore, try things out (within boundaries and limits of course so health and infringing on others don’t occur), and be rewarded for doing something different and novel. We train them to conform. Conformity is good. Conformity is rewarded.

Engineering is in fact a great place for risk taking. How can we tell students about the many great discoveries achieved through experimentation and even by accident while at the same time we force them (and reward them) to follow rigid rules all the way through their schooling? Mark shares how he has to breakdown 19 years of the student’s comfort and put in place an atmosphere that encourages risk-taking, all the while within the university system that perpetuates the same old paradigm of the not taking risk.

There’s a whole research and more articles about the implementation…the how-to…in developing, providing, managing for risk-taking. I’ll get to that later. But for now, Mark’s comment was a real conscious-raiser for me.