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Knowing the Risks
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Knowing the Risks



These days, it seems natural for people to be reluctant to take risks. We are, after all, still feeling the effects of a severe recession, and lots of folks are hunkered down, saving their pennies and waiting for something good to happen.

I completely understand this conservative impulse, especially on the business front, but it’s also obvious to me that if we’re going to take the necessary steps to return to more prosperous times, then we as individuals, as an industry and even as a society will at some point need to start taking risks again.

I bring this up because I have the sense that lots of us have been so stunned by what’s happened in the past two years that we’re still burrowing deeper into our shells instead of peeking out and recognizing once again that most good things in business and in life come from taking our chances.

You simply cannot succeed without risking failure. Yes, you might feel safe in your shell, but you will not move ahead by hiding in there and are indeed assuming the even greater risk of falling irreparably behind by missing opportunities you might otherwise be pursuing.


Risk is a huge concept, of course, and exists as many different types on many different levels. Personally, I like to think in terms of calculated risks, where I can evaluate and understand the potential upside relative to the possible downside and how my abilities, history and temperament influence my odds with respect to success or failure.

Sometimes the downsides are small, sometimes they’re big, but either way I want to know what they are. I’m aware, for example, that in pursuing a new business activity I run the risk of losing my investment or even doing so much damage that I might go completely out of business. Or perhaps the risks are to my reputation or self-esteem or self-worth rather than to my balance sheet.

If I am honest with myself, these negative portions of the risk/benefit calculation are usually fairly easy to assess. Indeed, most people are fairly good at evaluating downside potential and seem to have little trouble thinking their way through a typical “worst-case scenario.”

What’s often more difficult is fully grasping the potential upside, especially if it unfolds over a long time. Why? Well, it’s because it’s often impossible to know in advance what additional, unexpected doors might open as a result of taking a given chance. In fact, some of the greatest benefits I’ve enjoyed because of my own risk-taking have come in ways that I could not reasonably have anticipated.

Early in my career, for example, I joined Associated Swimming Pool Industries of Florida (ASPI), a trade group that’s still around to this day. Shortly thereafter, I was put in charge of membership development. When I’d signed up 10 new members, I was told by John Girvan, a chemical supplier and industry legend, that I’d have to give a report on my progress.

This terrified me: I’d never spoken in public before, and I clearly remember the sweaty palms and vague nausea that accompanied my first presentation. I had no idea at the time that taking this small risk of seeming foolish in front of my industry colleagues was the start of something much bigger for me.

In the ensuing years, in fact, I completely overcame my stage fright and rose through the ranks first at ASPI and then with the National Spa & Pool Institute. I also went on to host live radio shows – “All About Pools and Spas” and, later, “The Good Life” (about food and wine) and to teach innumerable classes and seminars in a variety of settings. I even do keynote addresses that put me up in front of hundreds of people.

When I think about where my public speaking has led me, I recognize that the payback for taking a relatively small risk early in my working life has been boundless. Now, as I look back over the course of my career, I recognize that just about everything good that’s happened to me has come as the direct result of taking chances. Some have been small, some quite large – and all, even the failures, have been worthwhile.


When I hung out my shingle as Aquatic Consultants in 1989, it was at a time when the vast majority of swimming pool companies gave away their designs for free. Those who were in the aquatic design business mostly dealt with commercial and institutional projects, and residential design consultants were few and far between.

I knew going in that there was a strong chance that my venture wouldn’t fly, but I saw a need and determined that the consequences of failure were negligible compared to the potential gain.

Frankly, it’s worked out well for me. As a result of taking that risk, I now travel the world consulting on significant projects, meeting fascinating clients and colleagues and working out of a comfortable office attached to my home. Best of all, I’ve been allowed to express myself creatively in ways I never would have dreamed possible.

Another case: Back in 1998, when David Tisherman, Skip Phillips and I started Genesis 3, we knew we were tackling various personal and professional risks and faced the possibility that the entire concept would flop. But we shared a passion for the goal of upgrading education in our industry and decided to move ahead regardless.

As it turns out, Genesis 3 succeeded beyond our wildest hopes, and we’ve seen it blossom into a community of like-minded professionals who share our passion for learning. It’s been good for lots of people, and it all happened because we decided that starting it was a risk worth taking.

In all of the instances I’ve touched on thus far – public speaking, starting a company, starting an educational enterprise – taking risk has usually meant stepping outside my comfort zone and putting myself in situations that diverge in some way from past habits or behaviors. For any of us, that takes nerve and even courage, because none of us knows what will happen or, even more so, how we’ll respond. But I believe this is the only way we truly grow in our abilities and reach positions where we cultivate the experiences that lead to wisdom and real satisfaction in life.

In watershaping, for example, this sort of professional stretching might involve a pool/spa specialist getting involved with landscape design – or a landscape architect or designer getting into pool design or construction. (These days, of course, those two “sides” are so intertwined that this might not seem like much of a leap; it wasn’t so long ago that the two disciplines were about as foreign from one another as could be.)

If getting directly involved in other (but related) fields is not possible, then maybe the move involves affiliating with or hiring people from those fields. So if you’re a watershaper whose work doesn’t reach beyond the edge of the deck (or a landscape artist who cuts things off in the other direction), this would mean collaborating with another company that specializes in skills you lack – or hiring people to fill those gaps in your own operation.


I would suggest that the risks in taking these steps beyond your comfort zone are relatively small – and that the benefits can be tremendous. These days, it can’t hurt for a pool person or a landscape person to cross lines, nor will it hurt to have access to skills in designing and building outdoor kitchens, waterfalls or fountains. But you’ll never know how good it can be until you try.

When I moved into pool design, for example, I did so with hubris on the one hand and ignorance on the other and soon talked my way into some projects that were well beyond the cookie-cutter level. In those early cases, I was probably incurring levels of risk that were well beyond my understanding, but despite collecting some bruises along the way, I worked hard and figured things out.

That process of discovering capabilities and limits is unlikely to be either pretty or fun, but as I see it, avoiding failure by refusing to take risks and never stepping out of your comfort zone is the easy way to miss opportunities. And you can generally be sure that, if you find yourself competing with someone who’s less risk-averse than you are, chances are better than good that the other guy has more to offer than you do.

By staying in your comfort zone, in other words, you may well find yourself being passed by others in your field. You may stumble from time to time when you muster your ambition and take risky steps, but it’s been my observation that these are learning experiences of great value. In fact, the most successful people I know are those who have experienced varying levels of failure on their pathways to success.

Learning from miscues can be painful, but if you take a chance and are not successful, you should always take a good, long look at the reasons why. Almost without exception, you will pick up something new and valuable, even if it’s as simple as “I won’t try that again,” or “That was harder than it looked.” And in most cases, I’d wager that you’d learn far more than that.

In this sense, even setbacks have their benefits: If you learn from missteps in your business or personal life, you can get to a point where you’ll see that it’s almost impossible to lose by taking risks.

I’m not talking here about unnecessary or silly risks where the odds of success are so remote (or the costs of coming up short are so dear) that it really doesn’t make sense to jump in. Flying a motorcycle over a row of recreational vehicles might seem a good and even lucrative idea to some, but it makes no sense to me: Broken bones are expensive, painful and debilitating, so I prefer to find my adrenaline highs elsewhere.

Such extreme propositions aside, however, there are very few situations in which you cannot benefit even from failure.


In studying risk takers, I have long enjoyed watching those who hang out on the leading edge of whatever is going on in a given field of endeavor. These people really put it on the line, grab risk by the horns and are perfectly willing to pay what I call “the frontrunner fee.” Simply put, when you try things that haven’t been done before (or done before in quite the same way), you often pay a price. But that’s exactly what it takes to gain the benefits that come from being ahead of the curve.

I do what I can to learn from these frontrunners by way of understanding the balance of rashness and courage it takes to jump ahead. I’ve also been something of a frontrunner myself at various stages of my career, and as a teacher, I try to take the insights I’ve gathered from my own errors and share them with others so they can bypass some of the costs while still reaping the benefits.

This is why I see education as such a wonderful thing: If you’re smart and pay the right sort of attention, you can bypass the frontrunner fee. As the saying goes, “A smart man learns from his mistakes; a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

I always advise my students to educate themselves continuously, so they’ll always be placing themselves in a position to benefit from those who have gone before and paid the price of learning something for the first time. As I see it, education is a process of building on chances others have taken with no great risk to yourself – except maybe the loss of time and money invested if you ultimately find the information to be unimportant.

Personally, I’ve come to accept that there are risks in everything – in driving down the road, making friends, hiring new employees, getting out of bed in the morning, trying a new restaurant or visiting a place I haven’t been before. There’s even risk in getting a haircut because I’m never quite sure how I’ll look when I walk out of the shop!

Given that risk is part of (if not the essence of) life, I say embrace it, learn to use it to your advantage, even celebrate it. No, I’m not suggesting everyone go out and start a new business or take up skydiving, but I do strongly recommend pushing your head out of your shell and finding appropriate risks that make sense.

There’s a great deal to be said for trying something that has the potential to lead to greater happiness, greater income, greater knowledge or all three. If you make these wagers smartly, you stand a good chance of coming out on the winning end, and your life will be the better for it.

After all, what do you have to lose?

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].

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