Hi, I'm Nick. This is my blog. I'm a life-long unschooler living in New York. You can find more about me here.

I help run the Recurse Center (YC'S10).

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What Sam Altman taught me about risk

March 04, 2011

Sam Altman once told me that nothing is ever as risky as you think it is. That comment struck me as true and got me thinking about why.

I've concluded that the reason is that our perception of risk is really a combination of two things: objective risk and subjective risk. By objective risk I mean the likelihood of objectively bad things happening. Riding a motorcycle without a helmet is objectively risky. By subjective risk I mean the potential of things that feel bad, like asking someone out and being laughed at.

It's easy to just see something as "risky" and not examine why that is. There could even be an evolutionary advantage to it -- better to think more sticks are snakes than to accidentally step on the one that bites you. We overweight certain bad outcomes instinctively.

But getting laughed at isn't like cracking your skull on pavement. They both suck, but you can train yourself to not let rejection bother you. This is the value of rejection therapy: You can immunize yourself against certain downsides.

What's incredible is that lots of things pose largely a subjective downside but have an objective upside. That means that if you can get past caring about those downsides, you can leverage yourself heavily and can repeatedly expose yourself to risks with big objective upsides with little effective downside. This is why good founders don't let the possibility of looking silly or failing publicly stop them.

Next time you're afraid to do something because it's too risky, take a moment and reflect on why you think it is. You might be surprised by what you realize.