Making a big decision in business or life often boils down to your comfort with risk.

Whether you're deciding if you should switch jobs, launch a new venture, invest in a promising company or even run a controversial (yet surprisingly effective) presidential campaign, we hear time and time again about the rewards of risky behavior. Problem is, risk just as frequently leads to to failure as it does to success.

Leaving a stable job for a riskier-sounding one isn't a gamble most are willing to make. Nor is sinking piles of money in a startup not guaranteed to succeed. As a risk-averse individual, you may chose to avoid uncertainty and stick to sensible decisions. But be careful. You might already be playing a dangerous game of risk without even knowing it.

Karen Firestone, the author of a soon-to-be-released book titled Even the Odds: Sensible Risk-Taking in Business, Investing, and Life, deals with risk every day. She's the president and CEO of Aureus Asset Management, an investment firm that manages the assets of companies and individuals. In researching her book, she spoke to many people about the risks they take in their own lives and came to an interesting conclusion. Oftentimes the safest path is really the riskiest one.

Why playing it safe can be risky

Firestone finds that many of the seemingly safe decisions we make bet on one unrealistic condition: That nothing surrounding the circumstances will ever change.

"I've come to the conclusion that although most of us consider ourselves risk averse, what we consider 'safe' behavior often contains much more uncertainty than we suspect," she wrote in a blog post for Harvard Business Review.

You've heard it before: The only thing that is constant is change itself. Yet we still expect we'll always know the outcome of the safe route.

That's irrational and impossible. Change is the norm, not the exception. When making any decisions, it's important to anticipate the potential upheaval of all your options -- including the one you deem to be the most stable.

The hidden risk in the status quo

Take for example, a woman who's considering a promising opportunity at a young, small firm so she can leave her soul-sucking job at an established company. Though it pays considerably less, the new position offers better work/life balance with more reasonable hours and a much shorter commute. If all goes well as this new firm grows, she can advance to a partner role and will match her current salary in a few years.

But the new firm is not guaranteed to be successful. The career move just seems too risky. So she decides to stay in her stable job. One year later, the woman loses her job in a round of downsizing. She's left worse off than had she taken the job.

What went wrong? There's no such thing as a "sure bet," even in the most stable of conditions. When she made the decision to play it safe, the woman didn't consider the possibility that her current job situation could change.

While the smaller company seemed like a riskier move, the job seeker could have better evaluated the risk of staying put. She might have noticed several red flags if she hadn't assumed the status quo would remain constant. "She's now better at recognizing that the status quo also comes with hidden risks, that sometimes the cost of inaction is higher than the cost of action," points out Firestone.

How the risk averse can avoid making mistakes

What if you're a play-it-safe kind of guy or gal?

Firestone encourages anyone who's not a risk taker to apply several strategies before making any big decision. Most importantly, she stresses the importance of evaluating the potential risks in the direction you perceive to be the safe path.

Research and dig into the data. Is your most stable of options really as safe as you think it is? Or can you predict some bumps and hurdles down the road? Despite those, is it still worth the risk?

Think also about the worst-case scenario of all options in front of you. What will you lose if the riskiest of moves goes south? The woman who decided against the risky job would have had more time for leisure activities and would have hated going to work less. Worst-case scenario, she would have had to live on a lower salary for longer than projected. Ultimately, the riskier move wasn't all that risky at all.

No matter how you define success, it's clear you'll have be comfortable with some amount of uncertainty and take risks to get there. So stop playing it safe and embrace a bit of risk.

Published on: Mar 14, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.