Does College Help You Take Risks?

I came across a blog post the other day, from Courtney Johnston:

      In college I did all the right things.  I had a job, did my homework and followed the rules.

     But my college courses failed to teach me one thing: how to take risks towards   making   my dreams a reality.  I’m not even sure college tried to teach risk taking.  Syllabuses and grade scales are definitely anti-risk-taking mechanisms.

 They teach us how to follow rules, not be bold.

They teach us how to do what someone else says, not to be creative.

They teach you how to be comfortable, not to be curious.

I fear she is right.  This issue has been troubling me for a while. We teach people how to quantify, analyze and mitigate risk.  We discuss that people have different degrees of risk aversion and explain to students the risk-return trade-off.  But what we don’t do is teach students to actually take risks in their professional lives.

Frankly, most students already come to us with a conservative mindset. Many parents promote college attendance because they believe it is the safest way to a good life.  It is seen as the minimum risk choice.

Once students get here, we stress skill development, getting things precisely right, and conforming to professional norms.  We tell them what to do in lectures, challenge their ability to provide the “right answers” in exams, manuscripts, and oral presentations, and penalize them with poor grades when they get it wrong.  I fear the message is: “follow others, play it safe.”

But we all know that a key to entrepreneurship (and life) is risk taking.  At some point, we all have to be willing to give up a sure thing in the pursuit of something of potentially greater value.   I have never met an entrepreneur who didn’t tell me a story about how they went to bed one night after striking out in a new direction fearing that their new venture wouldn’t be viable in the morning.

The core of the university experience rightly focuses on intellectual development, but I also want to help students nurture their entrepreneurial talents, among them the willingness to take professional risks.  The challenge is to create an environment that develops and tests for strong analytic, technical and inter-personal skills but also demands that student take risks, that they sometimes fail and that they learn from failure.

Developing an aptitude for risk-taking is one of the reasons I encourage students to get out of their comfort zones.  Leading a student organization; participating in competitions; studying abroad; getting to know people who are different from themselves; are all activities that require risk taking.  These activities can help students learn to adapt and perform in new and stressful situations where the outcomes are uncertain and not entirely within individual control.

But co-curricular activities alone are likely to be insufficient if for no other reason than they reach only a modest number of students.  Those students who need these confidence-building experiences the most are least likely to seek them out.  So we faculty are going to have to figure out ways to create classroom environments that encourage, assess, and give students feedback on their risk-taking propensities.  Developing assignments and valid rubrics that assess risk-taking are part of the answer, but what is really needed is a culture that celebrates this quality through story-telling, incentives and role models.  And we have to create this environment recognizing that many students are not going to be happy about this because they would prefer the safe and comfortable route. So it is important that college administrators develop mechanisms that encourage faculty to engage in innovation and risk-taking in the pursuit of instilling these qualities in our students.

I want the Courtney Johnstons of the world to develop the courage necessary to take professional risks that will help them realize their dreams.  How do we get this done?

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4 thoughts on “Does College Help You Take Risks?

  1. College doesn’t “teach” anything. It enhances your conceptual abilities so that you can teach yourself how to make your dreams come true.

    • Johnny: I certainly applaud the notion of personal responsibility for your education that is implicit in your commment. And, while I hope that we enhance students’ conceptual abilities, I do hope we do more than that. One definition of teach is “to accustom to some action or attitude ” I think of teaching risk taking in this sense…..

  2. I had a professor that day one came into class wearing a scuba suit and soaking wet. He was also the most serious man I know. He single handedly saved a dying branch of the college by inspiring his students to go “out on the deep end” when it meant accomplishing something great.
    He said nearly daily, “You might think a lot in life doesn’t matter; (name), everything matters.”
    I would say risk taking is contagious and something inspired in those who normally hold themselves “comfortably” by those we look to as educators. Everyone remembers that one amazing teacher they had.

  3. Paul, you asked a thought-provoking question on how to promote healthy risk taking. I think the lessons of “In Search of Excellence” by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. and Ben Carson’s “Take the Risk–Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk” collectively encapsulate most of my thoughts on the matter.

    To wit, leadership needs to cultivate a culture that encourages experimentation and celebrates attempts at something new and innovative even if and particularly if the intermediate results are not the desired ones!

    One parent (RWEJr.), who was also an academic, told me that his goal was to protect his child from permanent damage. I think that philosophy also has good academic value. We should encourage students to try things even if they might not fly and faculty should model this good behavior. Faculty also are reluctant to appear inept so unless there is a culture that supports risk taking, non tenured faculty aren’t likely to be participants!

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