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Doubling Down on the Impossible

In June, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) held its annual conference in Las Vegas, NV. I saw colleagues lose $50 at the slots and others win $150 at the blackjack tables. Still others, myself included, stayed away from the casino’s flashing lights and ringing bells because we wanted to avoid losing money – and the subsequent explanation to our spouses.

Recently I began reading Michael Lewis’s book, The Undoing Project, and learned about Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s theory of “Loss Aversion.” In short, the theory of loss aversion refers to people’s preference to avoid a loss rather than try for an equivalent sized gain. An example would be a $100 bet on the flip of a coin – you are just as likely to win a $100 as opposed to lose $100. Most people would not take the coin flip bet out of fear of losing $100 instead of focusing on the possibility of winning $100.

These two experiences made me consider how many times we, as career-service leaders, opt to lead in a loss-aversion mindset.

Loss aversion can manifest itself in many ways other than the winning or losing of money. How often do we continue a program past its lifecycle because we are afraid to try something new? Have we stayed with an office structure/process/operation because it is what we inherited and we do not want to upset any staff members instead of trying something new? When considering a new technology and we hear the price, is the immediate reaction disappointment because we are hesitant to petition leadership for the funds? In all these examples, we are operating in a loss-aversion mindset.

Let me be truthful: we all operate in a loss-aversion mindset from time to time. The examples I illustrated are real ones where I opted to take the road more traveled. The issue is when we find ourselves operating in a loss-aversion mindset the majority of time.

As leaders in the career services field, we need to think boldly because we have a responsibility to our students, schools, and employers to offer the best services we can provide. We should embrace risk as an opportunity for improvement instead of a potential for loss.

During times when I find myself dismissing opportunities out of fear, I try the following:

Find a Willing Accomplice(s):

When implementing a new idea, the purple Fear character (from the movie Inside Out) takes center stage. While we cannot eliminate fear, we can minimize this emotion by collaborating with others for support.

In 2013, the Carnegie Mellon University Career and Professional Development Center (CPDC) hosted an event for science majors. We were excited for the new initiative to connect students and employers. On the day of the event, student turnout was low. Many within the college of science were critical of the event – its timing, the format, the employers, etc. – and their criticisms were valid. Two years later, the CPDC offered a new event for science students. The CPDC and the college of science collaborated to reshape the event. The college was involved in choosing the timing, developing the format, marketing, and running of the event along with the CPDC. The result: student turnout was low.

After the second event, the college was incredibly supportive of the CPDC’s efforts. So much so, that a year later when a group of students began to voice their frustration about the lack of a dedicated career event for science students, it was the advisors and faculty within the college that pushed back on the students’ complaint and defended the career center. While neither event achieved its intended purpose, the resulting connection with the college borne from the collaborative effort has provided several opportunities for partnerships between CPDC and the college since the second event.

Pause for 24 Hours:

A recent development within my office triggered negative thoughts from me. At the time, I could only see the downside of the incident. The incident occurred during a time when, due to my and my supervisor’s schedules, no immediate action was possible. The resulting delay was a blessing as I began to see the incident through a different lens – one of opportunity that would allow the CPDC to evaluate our service model. I originally viewed the situation as a negative, but in the end, the episode will prompt the CPDC to improve.

Randy Pausch, a famous computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and subject of The Last Lecture book and video, tells a story about presenting an opportunity to two of his deans. In chapter 11 of the book, Randy shares the story of when he asked to take a sabbatical from the University of Virginia to work as an Imagineer at Disney. His college dean did not approve of the idea due to potential conflicts with the ownership of intellectual property – a valid reason. The dean of sponsored research took a different approach. That dean responded to Randy’s request saying that he did not have enough information at the time to say if the idea was good or bad, so he asked Randy to tell him more.

I am sure the second dean immediately saw red flags to Randy’s sabbatical plans, but instead of defaulting to loss aversion mindset, the dean of sponsored research explored the idea to evaluate the potential upside of the proposal. Spoiler alert for those reading the book – the second dean granted the sabbatical. Both Disney and the world of virtual reality are forever thankful.

Ask, Why Not Us?

In 2004, the Boston Red Sox found themselves in a 3-0 hole against the New York Yankees, my favorite Major League Baseball team, in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series (ALCS). No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS and the Red Sox had a long tradition of choking against the Yankees (e.g., Summer of 1978, Bucky Dent). The Red Sox responded by winning the next four games with Curt Schilling leading the way with his famed bloody sock and a t-shirt that sported a “Why Not Us?” mantra. Down three-games-to-none, thinking the Red Sox could achieve this epic comeback against a team that had been their nemesis since the Babe Ruth trade in 1920 was insanity. Schilling did not see the downside to the deficit; he saw an opportunity and donned his “Why Not Us?” shirt.

Before Roger Banister’s effort in 1954, conventional wisdom said running a sub-four minute mile was impossible. It had never been done. Two months after Banister first accomplished the feat, both he and John Landy covered the mile distance in under four minutes in the same race. Soon after, other runners also eclipsed the sub-four minute mark. Ten years after barrier was broken, even an American high school junior, Jim Ryun, ran a sub-four minute mile. Today, thousands of runners have achieved what once was thought impossible.

Everything is impossible until someone does it. Consider embracing Schilling’s mantra when presented with an opportunity. Instead of focusing on the steep cost of purchasing a new technology platform, the myriad of approvals needed for a new initiative, or the lack of available staff hours to dedicate to an effort – ask yourself and your team, “why not us?”

During times when I see a herculean task, I reread the quote from Mohammed Ali:

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare.”

Everything is impossible until someone, or some career center, does it for the first time. Maybe the next time NACE is in Vegas, I’ll play a hand with the expectation of winning. I just hope my wife shares my rejection of the loss-aversion mindset.

Kevin Monahan currently serves as the Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs for Career and Professional Development at Carnegie Mellon University. Since joining CMU in 2013, Kevin’s efforts have centered on collaborating with university leadership to provide a scalable vision for career services. He is passionate about using technology platforms as engagement and educational tools for career services – and is willing to talk with anyone on the topic of scaling career services to meet student end employer needs. A lifelong Yankees fan, Kevin has not yet recovered from the 2004 American League Championship Series. LinkedIn

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