JANUARY 7: “SAFE” RISKS

SIXTY-NINE YEARS AGO today (1945), New York Times Magazine published what it called “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights.” Number three on the list: “The right to make mistakes.” “Making mistakes is a source of learning and a part of growing up,” wrote the list makers.

Fifteen-year-old Jaylen Bledsoe would agree. He started a tech company at thirteen that in two years grew to be a $3.5 million global enterprise. His advice for young people: “Take risks. As a minor, there’s nothing you can do that will shoot you down for too long.”

Great advice. Except what constitutes a reasonable risk? Jump off a two-story roof with a bedsheet for a parachute and you might land gently on the ground. Or you might break both of your legs.

Most of us realize that risk-taking is not about taking ridiculous chances for marginal rewards. It’s about attempting something worthwhile that may fail. With rational risk-taking, failure is always an option.

The success-or-failure potential of risk-taking seems obvious, but is it? I once worked for a big city newspaper with editors that professed to value risk-taking, but when I questioned one of them about the commitment to that concept he said, “Yeah, we take risks, but we prefer safe risks.” He wasn’t trying to be funny.

Another time a manager who had just hired a new design editor told me, “This is a gamble, Bill. It may be the best move I’ve ever made, or it may be the worst.” Great! I thought. That’s real risk-taking! Only it wasn’t. When the new design editor proved to be a disaster, Michael the manager pretended otherwise and told his higher-ups that his risk had paid off. The higher-ups didn’t know any better and took Michael at his word. They praised him for his fine hire and his fearless risk-taking.

When it comes to reasonable teenage risk-taking, parents and teachers should take a page from the animated family in Meet The Robinsons (2007) and shower the youngster with praise. Check it out …

With encouragement, kids will keep trying. Will they create $3.5 million businesses like Jaylen Bledsoe? One thing’s certain: If they give up, they — and we — will never know.

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