Award-winning economist: How to harness 'the Hail Mary effect' to find success in your career

"If you take big risks, it gives you the opportunity to succeed."


Nearly a third of American workers under the age of 40 have considered changing careers during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a July Washington Post-Schar School poll.

Making a big career change during a time of such uncertainty can feel risky. "Many of us are fearful of not having enough to survive, and that's especially true in Covid," says Lauren Baptiste, founder and chief empowerment officer at Acheloa Wellness, a career and life coaching firm.

But taking calculated risks is a key ingredient of success, says award-winning economist William Silber, whose latest book "The Power of Nothing to Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War, and Business," was released earlier this month.

"If there's a single takeaway, it is if you have the attitude that there's nothing left to lose, you will take big risks. And if you take big risks, it gives you the opportunity to succeed," says Silber, who is also a former professor of finance and economics at NYU's Stern School of Business. "It doesn't guarantee that you will succeed. But if you do something that you love, and you give it your all, and you have a nothing-to-lose attitude, it promotes success."

Here's how to harness "the power of nothing to lose" and apply this mindset to your own career, according to Silber.

'If you're afraid to lose, you'll never succeed'

In his book, Silber uses specific examples of how "the power of nothing to lose" has benefited many people who have changed the course of history, from Rosa Parks to star athletes such as Venus Williams. "If you're afraid to lose, you'll never succeed," Silber says. "That goes for entrepreneurs, too."

"Now, that doesn't mean that if you have nothing to lose, you're always going to be a winner," he continues. "You're not." In order to succeed, "you must calculate the probabilities and not try something that's impossible. That won't work even if you have nothing to lose."

On top of that, "you do have to have some talent. You do have to practice, you have to do all the things that might give you a chance at winning, he says. "And then go in there with a nothing-to-lose attitude."

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Barbara Corcoran's road to becoming an investor on ABC's "Shark Tank" is the perfect example. The self-made millionaire and real estate mogul was cast as an investor on the show only to have the offer rescinded. With nothing left to lose, Corcoran wrote a persuasive email to the show's executive producer and turned his "no" into a "yes."

"People misinterpret 'noes' as an ending. They're simply an obstacle," Corcoran told Grow last August.

Baptiste agrees that you have to take risks to see rewards: "The odds of just falling into success without taking a risk is like hoping your soulmate shows up on your doorstep."

Ask yourself: 'What do I have to gain?'

"Getting out of our comfort zone is a spectrum," Baptiste says. "You have to take risks, but you can do it on your own terms. We don't all want to be the president, but we might want to be on the board of our favorite charity, or have a kid, or get a new job," she says.

Before changing jobs, or starting your own business, for example, Baptiste suggests taking inventory of all of the "currencies" in your life, which include, but are not limited to, money. "Energy is a currency. I might make a million dollars a year, but I'm exhausted and I don't get to sleep because of it."

"Time is a an important currency as well," she says. "So is health. Sometimes if you're taking something new on, you don't get to eat fresh cooked meals or have time to go to the gym," or spend time with family and friends.

When considering making a change, it's also important to ask yourself, "What do I have to gain?" Baptiste says.

How to find take risks 'consciously vs. desperately'

"We can mitigate the risk by doing things that increase our odds of success," Baptiste says.

Silber refers to this as downside protection. "Nothing happens to you if you have downside protection. You don't lose points if you choose the worst, you only gain points if you choose the best, therefore you become a risk lover," he says.

Go in there with a nothing-to-lose attitude.
William Silber
Author of "The Power of Nothing to Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War, and Business"

While downside protection often refers to trading stocks, you can also apply the idea to decision-making, Silber explains. In his book, he uses the example of Aaron Rodgers, star quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, who exercises restraint during the game to avoid throwing interceptions. When there are just seconds left in a game, Rodgers has taken many chances throwing the ball into the end zone. "Rodgers' wager has an asymmetric, or skewed, payoff: substantial reward without significant negative consequences, turning the normally disciplined leader into a gambler," he writes.

To increase your chances of success, Baptiste suggests taking conscious risks: "When we think about doing it consciously versus desperately, it's not just like kind of throwing it all to the wind."

For example, if you're thinking about changing careers or starting a business, one option is to make that pivot in stages to help smooth the transition and boost your odds of success. If you're taking a salary cut, you could start budgeting so you get accustomed to living on less before you jump ship.

Readying yourself for the potential risks is key, Silber says. "That's why you have to prepare. Do everything you can to become a winner, then take the shot and don't worry about losing."

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