Achievement and Risk-taking

By Anjum Altaf

We are reproducing, with slight changes, an article that discusses popular myths about the behavioral attributes of high-achievers. The objective is to show that some inherent and constant disposition is not a defining variable in achievement.

A recent article titled ‘Successful risk-takers’ advised readers to take only moderate risks if they wanted to be high-achievers. Before you follow the advice, imagine that you meet an old high school friend with whom you used to do the most risky things, and you suggest repeating them for old-times sakes. How likely are you to be told that he couldn’t because he was now a respectable married man with a young daughter to care for? If you have experienced the above, or find it plausible, you can conclude that the amount of risk people take depends upon circumstances. And that conclusion can be the starting point of an argument with the theory presented in the article.

The article begins with the hopeful message that “achievement is neither a gift of the gods, nor is it bestowed by the kind hand of fate, but is both a part of one’s disposition and training.” But just a little later the author shatters our hopes by telling us that high achievers are a ‘different type of people.’

How so? First, he mentions that high-achievers are different from gamblers, smokers, drug abusers and sexual deviants — “Gamblers and others take either very high risks or very low risks; a high-achiever, research shows, is a risk-taker who takes only moderate risks.” The theory stumbles right there for surely you can think of many high-achievers who gamble, smoke, abuse drugs or are sexual deviants.

What this suggests is that individuals are multi-dimensional and they often take very different risks in different dimensions. History is full of high achievers who literally smoked or drank themselves to death or threw away everything for the love of a woman (and who am I to say that they ought to have lived their lives differently; perhaps the one was the inspiration for the other).

Second, the author cites evidence from experiments in which “it was observed that high-achievers invariably took moderate risks in a given task which they were expected to perform as opposed to non-achievers who either took ridiculously high risks, or no risks at all to ensure that the task was ‘adequately’ performed.” A little reflection might convince you that such an experiment does not establish the relationship between the degree of risk-taking and the achievement but something quite different to that.

Since the author has used cricket to illustrate his thesis, let me use the same sport to develop my argument. A good starting point is the author’s statement that achievement is ‘both a part of one’s disposition and training’. Take Hanif Mohammed (the famed Little Master) as a representative of the cautious disposition and Shahid Afridi as a representative of the aggressive disposition. Now let us postulate a task to be performed. Imagine a one-day game between India and Pakistan — it’s the last ball of the game, Pakistan needs five to win and Hanif has the strike.

What would you expect Hanif to do if the ball is a good one right on the stumps? Play the ball on its merits in keeping with his cautious disposition or give it the best he can muster? Now change the task to be performed — again it’s the last ball of the game, Pakistan needs to negotiate it safely to win on run-average and Afridi has the strike. What would you expect Afridi to do if the ball is a long hop? Play it in accordance with his aggressive disposition and try and hit it out of the ground or keep it away from his stumps at all costs?

One may conclude from these thought experiments that a high-achiever is the sort of judicious person who is able to assess how much risk he or she needs to take to perform a task adequately. The high-achiever is not a robot always taking a moderate risk but one who can adapt and go against his or her natural disposition when the situation demands adaptation.

This brings us to the author’s example of Javed Miandad. Miandad was the quintessential adapter, one of the most intelligent of batsmen who knew just how much risk to take in any given situation. This ability was a major contributor to his legendary achievement. The ability to assess the amount of risk-taking required for the adequate achievement of a given task marks the difference between a Miandad and an Afridi who has yet to learn the art.

What this tells us is that disposition is not a defining variable in achievement. Both the naturally cautious and the naturally aggressive can be high-achievers provided they are able to correctly assess how much risk to take in any given situation. And this ability, a form of judgment, can be learnt. High-achievers are individuals who match the risk to the situation, not robots locked into a principle of moderate risk-taking no matter what the conditions.

It is always dangerous to over-simplify a complex phenomenon and attitude towards risk is a complex phenomenon indeed. The reader may easily realize from his or her own experience that the same individual can take very different risks depending on whether he or she is depressed or elated, angry or calm. And risk-taking behavior changes as an individual’s circumstances and responsibilities alter over time. Not only that, an individual can take very different risks in different dimensions as, for example, the heavy smoker who is extremely cautious with his finances.

Am I taking an injudicious risk by arguing with the author of the article? What if he gets really mad and makes an omelette of me, as the legendary Urdu writer Meeraji was wont to do to people who rubbed him the wrong way? It won’t help me much if he comes to his senses later and realizes he took a ridiculously high risk for no rhyme or reason.

A version of this article appeared first in the Daily Times, Lahore, in January 2004. It is reproduced here with permission of the author.



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