How Mark Zuckerberg thinks about risk — and what you can learn from it

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How Mark Zuckerberg thinks about risk — and what you can learn from it

As the calendar flipped from 2003 to 2004, Mark Zuckerberg was pretty much like any other sophomore at Harvard University. But that changed in February 2004, when he and a few classmates unveiled what would evolve into Facebook.

Today, the 33-year-old Zuckerberg is founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook, the social media network that reaped $27.6 billion in revenue in 2016. He’s also one of the richest people in the world, worth an estimated $64.1 billion as of early June 2017, according to Forbes.

Of course, Zuckerberg didn’t reach that lofty level without taking plenty of risks.

"The biggest risk is not taking any risk," Zuckerberg said in a 2015 interview. "In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks."

But as he recently explained in a widely lauded commencement address at his alma mater, Harvard, it was easier for Zuckerberg to take risks than for others. "There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business," he said. "I know lots of people who haven’t pursued dreams because they didn’t have a cushion to fall back on if they failed."

Risk is a complicated thing. It’s not distributed evenly, and not always distributed fairly. It’s necessary, but dangerous. With that in mind, we combed through Zuckerberg’s address to unearth five kernels of wisdom about risk — wisdom that could help you achieve your career and personal goals.

1. Don’t make assumptions.

Zuckerberg recalled telling a friend on the night Facebook launched that he was excited about connecting the Harvard community through this new social media platform, and that he thought someone at some point would similarly connect the entire world.

"The thing is, it never even occurred to me that someone might be us. We were just college kids. We didn’t know anything about that," Zuckerberg said. "There were all these big technology companies with resources. I just assumed one of them would do it. But this idea was so clear to us — that all people want to connect. So we just kept moving forward, day by day."

2. Don’t agonize about being outnumbered.

Zuckerberg said he never wanted to build a company. He merely want to make an impact. A couple of years after the company started, a few big companies expressed interest in buying Facebook.

"I didn’t want to sell. I wanted to see if we could connect more people," he said.

However, Zuckerberg, then 22 years old, was in the minority. Nearly everyone else involved in Facebook at the time wanted to sell.

"Without a sense of higher purpose, this was the startup dream come true. It tore our company apart," he told the Harvard graduates. "After one tense argument, an adviser told me if I didn’t agree to sell, I would regret the decision for the rest of my life. Relationships were so frayed that within a year or so, every single person on the management team was gone."

When disagreement erupted over selling the company, Facebook was developing the first News Feed, a feature that exposes users to content across the network. Zuckerberg said he thought that if News Feed were rolled out, "it could change how we learn about the world."

In the end, the company wasn’t sold. Facebook now ranks as the world’s number one social media platform, attracting almost 2 billion active users a month. Who knows what would have happened if Yahoo had succeeded in buying it?

3. Don’t worry about being different.

Zuckerberg said that anybody who embraces idealism should prepare to be misunderstood.

"Anyone working on a big vision will get called crazy, even if you end up right," he said. "Anyone working on a complex problem will get blamed for not fully understanding the challenge, even though it’s impossible to know everything upfront. Anyone taking initiative will get criticized for moving too fast, because there’s always someone who wants to slow you down."

Zuckerberg added: "In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing. The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting."

4. Don’t be afraid to fail.

The billionaire noted that Facebook wasn’t the first innovation he’d developed. He also built games, chat systems, study tools and music players. But none of those inventions gained traction.

Zuckerberg said he wasn’t alone in that regard. He pointed out that J.K. Rowling’s manuscript for the first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times before it was accepted.

"The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail," he said.

5. Don’t discount the value of luck.

None of us enjoys success just by coming up with a good idea or working hard, Zuckerberg said. Luck plays a part as well.

"If I had to support my family growing up instead of having time to code, if I didn’t know I’d be fine if Facebook didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If we’re honest, we all know how much luck we’ve had," Zuckerberg said.