It is with great anticipation, I begin to share my share excerpts of my upcoming book, The Risk Factor: Why Every Organization Needs Big Bets, Bold Characters, and the Occasional Spectacular Failure (January 6, 2015):
We are all born risk-takers. It’s this innate drive that has allowed the human race to come so far. But the lifelong process of socialization has a way of tamping down those daring impulses. Little by little, we are told what to do, how to do it, what not to do, where to go, where not to go, and so on, and pretty soon most of us forget how to go out on a limb. But a very few maintain their boldness, an ability to challenge the norms and to fight for better ways for us to live and work in the world. They don’t repent on their life’s unknowns. These are the people who have found their relevance and who, until their last breath, will be figuring out how to go beyond the edge of the limb.
In my last book, Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World, like any writer, I wrestled with the depth of my conclusions. I recognized that, in the end, I had only scratched the surface of why Silicon Valley was such an alluring anomaly. Yes, the Valley is a meritocracy that rewards value irrespective of age, experience, gender, skin color, or dialect. Many of its companies continue to raise the bar for organizational competence in the twenty-first century, and they not only lead their respective industries — they’re reinventing our economy. Yet the most anomalous characteristic of this innovative region, in my opinion, is that it’s not really a geographic location at all but a mind-set. Its chief principles are openness, trust, collaboration — and, most important, a willingness to take risks, at all costs. No idea is crazy — in fact, sometimes the more out there you are, the more respect you garner from your peers. (Witness serial entrepreneur Elon Musk’s vow to build a high-speed train that travels faster than the speed of sound). A failed company or idea isn’t a black mark on your resume in Silicon Valley — more often it’s a badge of honor, a sign that you just need to wait for a better time, a better place, a better team. Silicon Valley contains the most entrepreneurial mind-set on Earth, is on the edge of nearly all disruptions, and inspires a like-minded spirit to debunk all things traditional. In such environments, process doesn’t drive creativity; rather, the reverse — creativity and chaos first, process later. It is an infectious environment, full of helpful people who seem to know how to follow an undocumented set of rules on how things get done — a way of doing things that is found nowhere else on the planet.
In 2006, I moved to Silicon Valley and never looked back. Why? Because I went from being deeply indoctrinated into the most bureaucratic and hierarchical culture and having to unlearn toxicity to embracing a pervasive sense of optimism, where anything, anything is possible. I began my career in the gridlock of Washington, DC, spending 18 years there, first as a legislative aide in the U.S. Congress and the White House and, later on, as a media commentator for MSNBC, FOX News, and CNN — environments that define the rules for how to play on people’s fears. You learn how to play the game and to be careful on your way up; truly, you do never know who you will meet on your way down. If you don’t learn the rules, you get eaten alive. If you try to offer leadership, members within your own political party first will ask why you are doing that and then ask you to quietly stand in rank and file . . . or else. I have so many stories.
After I moved to Silicon Valley, I began to recognize that people are innately collaborative, trusting, supportive, and fearless. Because of this unique ecosystem, I was able to build out three companies in six years: BettyConfidential, Alley to the Valley, and ChumpGenius. When my cofounder and I faced the cofounders’ dilemma, as we messed up on a viable offer to sell BettyConfidential early on, our investor stood by our side and never made us feel like failures. She just expected us to figure it out and work toward a solution. It took us four more years to see serious acquisition activity. Through the writing of both books, I had incredible access to some of the world’s greatest innovators (mostly West Coast–based chief executive, chief technology, and chief information officers in addition to venture capitalists, lawyers, and intellectual property experts), and what amazed me the most with all these meetings is that these people felt that they had just as much to learn from me as I did from them. Often I would be asking questions, and their follow-up was “I’d like your opinion on . . .” It wasn’t that I had all the answers, but they wanted to learn from what I was seeing, what I was hearing. This just would not happen in Washington, where people’s favorite pastime is one-sided pontification of my way or the highway.
This is a book about risk’s perplexities, its opportunities, its perils, and for most people, our collective fear of it. Risk applies to every aspect of the human condition and is a product of both nature and nurture. Yet the most lingering questions are: Can the desire to take risk be learned? What factors are necessary to create a risk-taking and innovative environment? And most important, how do you become the person who takes the right risks at the most critical time?
Deborah Perry Piscione is a principal and cofounder at Vorto Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based boutique-consulting firm dedicated to enabling companies to innovate and grow. She is the author of the upcoming book, The Risk Factor (St. Martin’s Press, January 2015), the New York Times bestselling book Secrets of Silicon Valley, and an Internet entrepreneur, board advisor and nationally recognized speaker. A former congressional and White House staffer, she spent over a decade as a media commentator on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox News, PBS, and NPR programs, and her work has been covered in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Forbes.