Risk-taking: What’s culture got to do with it?

We all take risks. Some of us more so than others.

‘Stay hungry’ is often thrown around by thought and business leaders to indicate the importance of searching for more. In that search we take more risks and open up opportunities to learn and create. But why are we different in our risk appetite?

Since I moved to NYC in 2015, I often thought about that question. Culture is one of the reasons why we are different.

By culture, I mean the environment in which you first socialize and acquire and entrench certain assumptions about the world and how it works. Having moved from a collectivist society with a high level of material comfort (#qatar) to an individualistic one with a high level of competitiveness (#nyc), I needed to adapt to how the new culture views risk-taking.

Here is how I think cultures differ when it comes to risk-taking:

  1. Attitude towards learning and failure: Some cultures, especially collectivist ones that emphasize the interest of the group over that of the individual, prefer that we stick to a script with a proven track record of ‘success’. This could mean that becoming a doctor or an engineer is preferred over becoming an entrepreneur or an artist. Learning is linear. Life milestones are linear. This means failure is less tolerated and often colors your record with certain labels such as becoming ‘a burden to the family’. This attitude also arises from economic and political uncertainty in certain developing economies. In such places, economic survival is paramount. To increase your chances of maintaining a stable life, you are better off accumulating wealth rather than experience. Wealth is material and can be readily liquidated to provide security while experience is a luxury and cannot be converted to tangible protection.
  2. Attitude towards gender: In some cultures, if you are a woman, you are less encouraged to take risks. In fact, taking risks is seen as a ‘masculine’ trait that immediately reduces your chances in the ‘marriage market’. You are ‘too liberal’ or ‘difficult to predict’ and that behavior might offend some men that buy into the conservative system of the patriarchy. Such gendered attitude often starts in the family, through role allocation. Teenage boys are allowed to hang out with friends in public places until late at night while teenage girls need to be more closely monitored because they are ‘vulnerable’ to sexual predators. Today, some women from such collectivist societies tell me that they are ‘encouraged’ to study, start their businesses etc. Thus, old paradigms of gendered limitation hold less sway. To that, I ask the questions: are you ‘encouraged’ to do the same things that your brother is encouraged to do, or are the activities selected for your risk-taking gendered? Would you receive the same level of ‘encouragement’ if you decide to become an investment banker or a surgeon vs. an owner of a cupcake shop or a nursery?

What does risk-taking look like in your life? In your family? In your society?

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