Commentary by Marlo Donate, Vice President of Digital Technology, Farmers Insurance

Off-road racing is a family tradition for me. My dad owned an auto shop, building custom engines and fixing Jeeps. On the weekends, he raced in the desert and brought the whole family along. Racers had to be willing to fly over obstacles at top speeds, know when to punch down the engine to overtake an opponent, and understand exactly how far they could push their vehicle in triple-digit heat. Every part of these races involved calculated risks. Today my brothers run a performance auto shop in Orange, California, while I ended up in IT. When I think back to those days standing in the dusty, hot desert, I remember that universal lesson: no one gets anywhere playing it safe.

Taking a risk is easier said than done. While scientists point out that undertaking risk is critical to the development of every species, our brains have evolved to be wary of uncertainty. 

The problem is we all suffer from a psychological phenomenon called negativity bias. That means we focus on undesirable outcomes, real and imagined. Negativity bias has a purpose; most researchers believe we developed it to keep us out of harm's way, according to an article on Psychology Today. But, too often we focus on the worst-case scenarios and end up feeling anxious and stressed instead of excited by risk.

But in life, professionally and personally, I've found risk-taking to be advantageous. In taking risks in my career, there are two important things I've learned:

Fine-tune intuition through risk

The first of those skills is honing my intuition. Throughout a career, we all face an array of choices-none of which are black and white, a point that is doubly true if you are starting a new venture. In addition to using data and facts, a requirement of effective decision making, developing a strong gut will help you know what choice is best for you and your company. The benefit of this quality has even been scientifically proven. A study from CPP Inc., publisher of the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, found that intuition and perception were the most important traits to have to be a successful small business owner.

Whether you are born with strong intuition or cultivate it over time, taking risks can help make your instincts better. The key is to start small. Taking chances that have lighter consequences or starting side projects are great ways to gamble conservatively. A small risk I took near the beginning of my career - volunteering for a new technology initiative even though I lacked the experience - led to a successful and fulfilling IT career that has lasted two decades. Even if taking a chance doesn't pan out the way you hoped, the lessons you learn from it can help you better assess risk in the future.

Risk and risk again

Embracing a willingness to fail and learn from the mistake is essential to turning risk from a con to a pro. Most people avoid risk because they fear failure. Or they give up after one attempt.

But embracing risk and the idea that your gamble won't work out can help you become agiler - a characteristic author John Coleman, who studied traits of Harvard MBA graduates for his book "Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders," says creates more strategic leaders. According to Coleman, leaders who are agile are most prepared to handle a world that is changing quickly and unpredictably.

Careers, like off-road races, are full of unknowns. But if you can embrace risk and learn to take it in a measured way, you'll learn and succeed much faster than those who choose to stay in the slow lane.

Published on: May 31, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.