Safe is Risky: The Rewards of Facing Your Fears

04 Dec
December 4, 2010

"Safe" is Risky: The Rewards of Facing Your Fears

The 2010 Winter Olympics are behind us and I for one am sad to see them go. There were so many compelling moments that defined the Vancouver Games for me, from snowboarder Shaun White’s incredible Double McTwist 1260 in the half-pipe (a trick only he can perform); to Apolo Ohno passing the Chinese team in the anchor lap of the 5000 meter short track relay to become the most decorated American in Winter Olympic history; to the final frantic seconds of regulation and overtime in the US–Canada gold medal hockey game. But nothing brought me to edge of my seat like Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller’s exhilarating performances in the men’s and women’s downhill.

What I love so much about all of our Olympic Athletes and find so well-exemplified in these two in this event, is their absolute understanding and embracement of a simple, but profound principle, one I believe creatives should never forget: That distinguishing achievement often requires more than talent and training; more than skill and desire; more than preparation or luck. It most often requires exceptional courage and a willingness to take extraordinary risks. And that’s not easy or natural for anyone.

Consider that when Vonn raced, in addition to a badly bruised leg, she also faced the pressures of a spectacular run by teammate Julia Mancuso, just moments earlier. Vonn was rattled. But rather than downplay the moment, Lindsey’s husband and coach, Thomas, who had just finished watching Mancuso’s blazing finish from his position at the bottom of the hill, radioed up to his wife, who was nervously fidgeting at the starting gate, specifically to confirm for her that Mancuso had just completed a “special run”; and to relate, “You’re going to have to be perfect to win.”

Vonn would later state that this simple, strategically calculated message from her husband allowed her to “focus on that challenge” and “let go of her fears”. She subsequently took the most aggressive lines all the way down the mountain, coming perilously close to wiping out at nearly every turn. The result: she beat Mancuso’s “sepcial run” by over a full half-second.

Likewise, ignoring treacherous course conditions resulting from warm weather and light snow, Bode Miller attacked the downhill course with reckless abandon to become the first American men’s skier to stand on the podium for that event since Tommy Moe, sixteen years ago. His bronze medal time was 1:54.40, only nine one-hundredths of a second behind gold medalist, Didier Defago, the smallest differential ever between gold and bronze in Olympic history. Said Miller of his and the American team’s performance: “We went after it. We weren’t scared. We were always aggressive.”

Of course, while a willingness to lay it all on the line can pay huge dividends as it did in both of these instances, it never guarantees success, and often sets the stage for spectacular failure. Later, attempting to go 5 for 5 in Olympic events in the slalom –the one event for which he had not won an Olympic medal– on a challenging course of sticky, wet snow that was proving difficult for many of the racers, Miller did not change his approach. The consequence: he ran into trouble almost right out of the gate. Said Miller,  “It’s unfortunate to go out so early, but you have to take risks… and I did.”

I believe creatives from designers, to copywriters, to marketing strategists should take the same approach as Miller, Vonn and others and not allow themselves to be constrained by fear. I appreciate creatives who are willing to explore their most conceptual ideas, even if it results in more misses than hits. I know that doing so will give them their best chance to come up with something great, which is the only thing I ever want to present to a client.Great creative work must always take a point of view. It has to have “something to say” to be memorable. Remember that people respond to “different” and “unpredictable”. In this sense, “safe” is risky. The real problems begin when fear- the fear of mistakes, the fear of looking foolish, the fear that someone won’t “get” your idea, prevents you from saying anything at all.

I once heard Jeff Kling, ECD of Euro RSCG put it this way: “Screw-ups are tools of evolution. They help us survive.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement. Remember also that in the business of marketing and advertising, we’re not looking to connect with the 80% of people who may not “get”, like, or even care about our creative, but rather the 20% who do and are inspired to act upon it.

So the next time you’re faced with a daunting creative challenge (or business challenge, or life challenge), don’t allow yourself to become compromised by fear. Rather, recognize that most of life’s rewards do not come without risk; that we all fall down sometimes; and that even those instances leave us better prepared to make some truly extraordinary runs in the future.

If nothing else, we’ll put people on the edge of their seats. At least for marketers, that’s our job.

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