Jun 052017

Risk-taking As An Entrepreneur – Are You Free Soloing?

How do you view the risk-taking that you do as an entrepreneur?

Do you feel like it is “all you” and any mistake you make could cost you your business and your financial future? Or, do you feel as though you’ve hedged your most important risks and built a support system that would act as a safety net to help you get through the inevitable mistakes that happen?

Yesterday, news surfaced that Alex Honnold had accomplished one of the greatest – and some would say most risky – climbing feats in history. He did a “free solo” climb of the almost 3,000-foot granite wall know as “El Capitan” in Yosemite National Park, in just under four hours! Free soloing means that he did the climb without the support of ropes or other climbing safety devices and without the help of other climbers.

It was just him, his climbing shoes and a bag of chalk hanging from his waste to help keep his hands dry.

How is that for risk-taking?

To the uninitiated, and to those unaware of the incredible climbing prowess and other free solo feats of Alex Honnold, such an accomplishment would sound unfathomable. Never mind the fact that it’s hard to wrap your head around someone having the physical ability to accomplish such a climb, but what about the nerves and fear that must creep into someone’s mind when they’re a couple thousand feet above the ground, climbing a granite rock face, with no safety gear?

Wouldn’t such a situation cause the mind to get caught in an endless loop of the worse-case scenario and freeze up like a late 80’s PC?

In Alex Honnold’s case, at least, the fear did not paralyze him and he was able to continue all the way to the top and accomplish a goal he’s had since he was a child. For him, the focus was not on risk-taking. Rather, the focus was on what he needed to do to reach his goal and accomplish perhaps (probably) the greatest feat climbing has ever seen and likely will ever see.

So, how did he control his thoughts and fears and how does such risk-taking map to what we as entrepreneurs have to navigate on an ongoing basis?

First, you have to say that on the surface, it’s difficult to compare the two, because unlike Alex Honnold’s free solo conquest of El Capitan, our activities on a daily basis as entrepreneurs are rarely, if ever, life or death. If we make a mistake as entrepreneurs, it’s unlikely that we will suffer the unforgiving nature of the laws of gravity, as Alex surely would.

Second, in our role as entrepreneurs, it’s unusual that we’ll be in a circumstance where we even figuratively speaking we have no safety net in place. Usually, in our risk-taking as entrepreneurs, we design hedges and other safety valves in our financial, operational and marketing activities that allow us to avoid ‘bet the company’ decisions. This is not always true, of course, and sometimes through lack of planning or just simple bad luck, crises arrive or other situations occur that can put a company out of business. But, it’s rare that we consciously say, I’m going to bet the company on this decision, and in order to make it more challenging and more interesting, I’m going to purposely avoid hedging my bets, which is what Alex did with his free solo of “El Cap” and many other challenging rock faces previously.

Third, in addition to putting hedges in place, we usually have a strong support network that we build up over time as entrepreneurs and call on as needed when issues arise. If we don’t have such a network in place, we’re typically aware we should and work to build one over time.

So, if we’re typically not operating completely without a net in our risk-taking as entrepreneurs, as Alex does in his free solo climbing conquests, how is what he does relevant to us as entrepreneurs?

Alex’s free solo climbs speak to a few things that are paramount to being successful as entrepreneurs: 1.) Being committed to what we’re doing, to the point where (figuratively, at least) we’d put our life on the line to reach our goals; 2.) Being prepared, so that we maximize our chances of success, even if what we’re trying to accomplish seems crazy to others; and 3.) Being focused exclusively on the task at hand, not allowing outside distractions to dilute our efforts as we strive to realize the vision that we have for our lives and our entrepreneurial ventures.

In terms of being committed, Alex Honnold has proven time and again that he is willing to put his life on the line to reach his free solo climbing goals. He doesn’t just talk about going out there and doing these climbs that heretofore were considered impossible. He goes out there and makes it happen. How committed are you to doing whatever it takes to make your entrepreneurial endeavor(s) succeed?

In terms of being prepared, Alex Honnold has worked his whole life to reach the point where he could free solo El Capitan. He’s honed his craft on safer, roped ascents. He’s spent countless hours preparing his body physically to withstand the fatigue that is sure to set in on such an endeavor. He’s scouted El Capitan and rehearsed in detail the climbing moves he’d have to make, particularly in the most challenging areas of the climb. He’s free soloed lesser, but still challenging other rock faces to prepare his mind and his body for the stress that comes with climbing “without a net”. This list goes on and on of the preparation Alex has done to maximize the odds that he could safely accomplish his objective. How would your business look if you did a similar level of preparation?

In terms of being focused, Alex knows that when he’s on a rock face with no safety equipment to catch him in case of a mistake, he must be 100% focused on the task at hand. In his case, that focus is quite literally a matter of life or death. How focused are you when you are involved in the key activities you know are vital to the success of your business? If you could be completely focused as Alex must be, how much further could you go as an entrepreneur?

Well, congratulations to Alex Honnold on his extraordinary feat of free soloing El Capitan. Here’s to learning the lessons of commitment, preparation and focus that Alex has modeled before and during this amazing accomplishment, and putting those to work in improving the odds of success in the risk-taking we encounter as entrepreneurs!


Paul Morin