Thursday, September 4, 2014

How Risky Is Your Business?

What is the relationship between risk and success in your career field?

My mother has been a middle school orchestra teacher since she graduated college. When I asked her the above question, her immediate reaction was to shake her head “no.” Small risks are considered rewarding at times—trying a new technology or a new lesson plan—but it’s a stable job. In education, school administrators measure success by numbers: high tests scores for students and high scores for teachers on their evaluations.

Teachers like my mother evaluate success based on their students; a tangible measure of success for a teacher is to be named most influential teacher by high school seniors graduating in the top 5% of their classes. My dad likes to recount the time a 6th grade violist finished a passage he’d been working on, thrust his viola and bow into the air and proclaimed to the watching walls, “I’m better!” To my parents and teachers like them, risk is not a large element for pedagogical success.
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In her book about Venture Labor, Gina Neff (2011) says risk has become the key to success in many fields (she examined dot com businesses). She writes of a “new set of players” who are young, single, and willing to take and absorb risk in order to find greater success than stability brings. If ventures fail, these entrepreneurs fall back on family resources. They tend to blame themselves and their choices rather than a sudden economic downturn or decisions made by bosses.

Even those already at employed in a company work in “fear of falling behind” which in turn requires extra hours of work. In her conclusion, Neff looks at other careers besides dot coms, mentioning the “risk” musicians take in using their time resources on practicing, their financial resources on buying an instrument and keeping it in good shape—all in hopes that they will, in the future be hired.

This hits home for my own career as a writer. Writing takes time and until a proposal is in hand or a contract sign, writers aren’t paid a bit for that work. It’s always a risk, so consistent a notion that I’ve stopped thinking of the time expenditure as a “risk,” but instead as my “hobby”—though that doesn’t diminish risk’s existence. I’m gambling that my work on writing will pay off in some way; it might not be a financial pay off (plenty of published authors don’t make enough money to call it a career), but I continue to wait for the satisfaction of published writing not yet present in my writing career.

What about your own career? What is success and how is it measured? What is the relationship between risk and success in your field?

Neff, G. (2012). Venture labor: Work and the burden of risk in innovative industries. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Chapter 6 Conclusion: Lessons from a New Economy for a New Medium? (pp. 149-165)


  1. Interesting. Publishing these days is such a risky business, and yet I'm not the one taking those risks; I have to trust The Powers That Be to decide what books are worth the investment of publishing and then just do my bit to market them as effectively as I can -- very low personal risk.

  2. This is really cool because it's the opposite of what the author said the dot com businesses all did. Since my parents are in teaching, I had the same experience as you: the broader organizations take the risks (not so much in teaching I guess at all) while the employees have to go with it. Maybe the downside is less agency as an employee?