Risk? What risk?

Photo of a young woman in front of three doors About a year ago, with our daughter entering the second half of her junior year in high school, many of our family dinner conversations began to touch on college planning. What colleges to visit? When to sign up for standardized tests? When was the next meeting with the college counselor?

During one of these conversations, my daughter asked me how I chose which college to attend. Before I tell you what I said next, you have to understand something about me: I grew up in a small town, in the same small town where my father was raised, and where his father was raised. I don’t exactly come from adventurous stock. So, at age 17, when deciding where to go to college, I chose the best school within a 50 mile radius of my home. Fortunately, it was an ivy league university, and to this day, I’m thankful they accepted me.

Back then, I evaluated opportunities by thinking of things that could go wrong, the potential downsides. What if I went far away to college, got sick and needed my mom? What if I didn’t have enough money to travel home for Christmas? Would I find a safe place to store my things over the summer break? You get the picture.

However, I’ve changed since then. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the positives that can come from risk, and I now evaluate opportunities by looking at all the things that could go right. And I’ve found myself saying yes to things that my younger self would have talked herself out of. One example from the past year? Joining Athentica, an early-stage startup, as the CEO. When I was being recruited, I looked at the impact we could have with our first product, the business we could build, what I would learn, and the ways I would grow my network. Sure, there was the risk that we wouldn’t be successful, but I didn’t let myself focus on that. Instead, I looked at the upside and said yes.

Well, it turns out things didn’t go according to plan; I recently made the difficult decision to leave the startup. Did I fail? That’s not how I’m looking at it. I learned a lot about early-stage startups. I made strong connections with the venture capital community and with people working to improve online education. I led the development of the initial product offering. I worked with great people. So much good came from it.

Perhaps most importantly, my kids saw me take this professional risk. And, they know I’m doing just fine, even though it didn’t work out. I hope they’ll think back on this time when they need to evaluate options in their future careers. I want them to be able to take a risk—to take on a stretch assignment, to move internationally, to switch jobs—and not be held back by the fear of all the things that could go wrong.

In other words, I want them to be able to transform risks into opportunities.


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

9 thoughts on “Risk? What risk?

  1. That is awesome! And I think it is great to not define success by whether or not the company was successful and grow – there are so many factors that go into that – but more by what you gained from the experience so you can continue to be successful and grow.

    1. Thanks, Marie! It’s so good to hear from you, and to get your support on what I shared today. It means a lot to me. Onwards…to gaining additional experiences, learning, and growing!

  2. Well put, Karen. I think it was Hemingway who said “Hesitation increases in relation to risk in equal proportion to age”. And no, I’m not calling you old, promise. 🙂 But the truth is that taking risks gets scarier as life’s responsibilities increase. And so showing the next generation that it is still worth it, and teaching them that “failures” are actually lessons that support future opportunities, that becomes even more important.

    1. Well said, Ben. It’s good to hear your perspective…on balancing the need to support a family, pay a mortgage, and so on with the importance of growing professionally and enabling future opportunities. Thank you for commenting, and I hope you are doing well!

  3. Thanks for this post, Karen. I’ve been following your work with Athentica for a little while now, mostly because I find your writing and advice very helpful, as a woman who is trying to make some headway in the tech industry. It’s great to hear that sometimes you just need to go for it. I can never hear that enough – thank you.

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