Are you frightened of taking a risk? If so, ask yourself a question. Are you scared because it could have real, dire consequences? Or could it just have dire consequences for your ego?

A few weeks ago, I took part in a podcast about risk and what stops us from taking the chances that could propel us to a higher level of success. It suddenly struck me that--although we often confuse them--there are two very distinct forms of risk. And though we may be equally afraid of both, they deserve very different levels of respect.

The first is when we take a chance on something that could really harm us, either physically or materially. Athletes and explorers take physical risks routinely, and so do the rest of us when we, say, go scuba diving or go out driving in a snowstorm to an appointment or event we just don't want to miss. We may also take material risks, for instance when we quit a job to start a business or take out a mortgage. We take the risk in pursuit of something we consider important, but we're also aware that things can go horribly wrong and we could wind up much worse off than we were before.

But then there's ego risk, the kind of risk where the only harm we might suffer is to our pride, our public image, and our self-esteem. Much too often, we treat this kind of risk as though it were equal to real physical or material risk.

This is why in surveys people routinely rank fear of public speaking above fear of death. It's nonsensical of course. I'm fairly sure that if you stood most people at a podium, pointed a gun at their head and told them to give a speech or die, they'd start speaking in a hurry. Stack up ego risk against real risk and ego risk will crumble every time.

Why do we so often confuse the two? Glen Croston, PhD proposes a fascinating explanation in a Psychology Today post: Way back in our evolutionary history, ego risk and physical risk were one and the same. Early humans lived in groups for protection. They feared being ostracized which could lead to ejection from the group and very likely death from an animal predator or enemy human group.

Today, that fear of ostracism is what makes some of us keep silent if we're in a group of people saying things we deeply disagree with. It explains everything from our terror of making sales calls to our shyness when called on in a meeting. And it's why so many of us find public speaking so terrifying.

But if our fear of taking ego risks has a valid evolutionary explanation, it's still getting in the way of our achievements. Think of any wildly successful entrepreneur you've ever heard of, from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson to Mark Cuban and the thing they all have in common is that they've overcome (or perhaps were born without) that fear of making fools of themselves.

For the rest of us, setting that ego fear aside isn't so easy to do. But asking ourselves these questions may help:

1. If I take this ego risk, and it goes horribly wrong, what's the worst that can happen?

Let's say you get up to the podium and suddenly realize you left your speech in the taxi. Or you hyperventilate and faint. Or the audience boos. All of these can happen and have happened to public speakers. You would likely be very upset if one of them happened to you. But then less upset the following day, and less the day after that. I guarantee, you would get over it.

2. If this goes badly, how much will I care in a year? In 10 years?

I remember my first paid public speaking gig, a lunchtime talk that my husband and I gave at a major corporation in support of our co-authored book. We didn't lose our speech or faint, but we weren't very practiced at giving talks. Afterward, the comments we got made it clear that we still had a lot of room for improvement.

That was almost a decade ago, and since then we've done a lot more speaking and become much more polished, partly because of what we learned from that first less-than-stellar presentation. It felt crummy at the time; now I'm grateful we had that opportunity to get better.

3. Will the people who care about me be ashamed of me for failing or proud of me for trying?

Thinking about what your loved ones and staunchest supporters will say if you trip and fall can help you put fear of ego risk in perspective. You're not going to get ostracized, not by a long shot. There are people in your corner who will be nothing but proud that you gave this your best attempt. They probably would be more disappointed in you for not trying.

4. If I were advising a friend, what would I tell him or her?

Chances are, you'd encourage your friend to go for it and not let fear of embarrassment be a deterrent. That's good advice. You should follow it yourself.

5. What will I lose if I don't take this risk?

We get so focused on the risks of putting yourself out there that it's easy to forget there's also risk in not doing so. That risk may take the form of lost opportunity, stagnation from staying too long in one role, or boredom, which is worst of all.

6. What might I gain if this goes well?

After all, things might go very badly, but they could also go very well. If they do, what doors might that open to other moves you might like to make or opportunities you'd like to pursue? Taking this ego risk may be your first step toward making your dreams come true. You'll never find out unless you try.

Published on: Apr 30, 2015
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.