A Feature Not A Bug (What Is Risk?)



It took some years of being self-employed to understand that accepting insecurity is a career requirement; taking risks equals job security. To people who work for other people, this likely sounds counterintuitive, but the longer you’re self-employed the more intuitive it becomes. Championing risk as a factor in building a successful career is prescribed in books, magazines, conferences, movies, all over the culture at large. To be reliable, which is what the work-world demands, while at the same time being innovative…can make your head spin.

I earn most of my keep in the photography world, which becomes more of a commodity every year because the bar to entry gets lower all the time. Professional photographers need differentiators to separate ourselves from the amateurs we are compared with and from emerging photographers who by default charge less than us because they can’t justify charging the same as an experienced pro.  No less, journeyman photographers have to differentiate ourselves from each other.

One separator is working harder than everybody else, including constantly refining our analytical skills by paying attention to our industry, our customers, and our own particular career. Working harder, in and of itself, does not equal taking risks, of course, but it’s a necessary element.

Chris Kimball is a successful guy. The creator of the tv shows America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country; a successful publication that predates the shows and is still going strong, Cook’s Illustrated Magazine; a subscription-based website and plenty more, Kimball long ago figured out how to differentiate his business from his voluminous, frothy, and ever-changing competition, departing from his industry’s commoditization in all kinds of ways. In an interview on The Federalist website some years back, he said,

“We recently did an analysis here: We spend $12,000 to develop a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. That’s a lot of money. That’s weeks of work. The reason we do it is because that’s the point of differentiation. If you have something people can get in ten other places, I just don’t know how you make a go of it in the web world, unless you’ve got a lock on some sort of traditional media.”

To be successful in the arena Chris Kimball operates in – food, a well-known commodity – requires something well beyond reproducing the same thing over and over again like a reliable recipe: you have to be useful, entertaining, and dependable in a variety of media and subject matter. A high bar to match. It’s no small thing to fulfill those criteria.

Taylor Swift understands this as much as Chris Kimball, as she reveals in the November 2015 issue of GQ, interviewed by Chuck Klosterman. Swift has had a phenomenal ten-year career in an industry in which most people don’t last ten minutes, so it would be a serious blunder to believe she does not posses top-level skills of self-analysis linked with a clear-headed awareness about how her industry  operates. Her last album, 1989, is a massive hit (as every album has been), and the reason she was interviewed for the article. Despite that track record, as she prepared the album for release everyone at her label tried to dissuade her from doing what she wanted to do, which was to make exactly the record she wanted to make. They assured her taking that path would be a massive mistake.

“But to me, the safest thing I could do was take the biggest risk. I know how to write a song. I’m not confident about a lot of other aspects of my life, but I know how to write a song. I’d read a review of [2012’s] Red that said it wasn’t sonically cohesive. So that was what I wanted on 1989: an umbrella that would go over all of these songs, so that they all belonged on the same album. But then I’d go into the label office, and they were like, ‘Can we talk about putting a fiddle and a steel-guitar solo on ‘Shake It Off’ to service country radio?’ I was trying to make the most honest record I could possibly make, and they were kind of asking me to be a little disingenuous about it: ‘Let’s capitalize on both markets.’ No, let’s not. Let’s choose a lane.”

It might be counterintuitive to consider both Taylor Swift and Chris Kimball as role models, but it helps me remember to choose a lane. The real risk is not choosing one.