5 Essential Principles of Risk-Free Success

Do you believe in success without risk? I just read The Warren Buffett Way and there’s an interesting passage there about how Warren Buffett considers risk:

He does not add a risk premium to his formula for the simple reason that he avoids risk…
“I put a heavy weight on certainty,” he says. “If you do that, the whole idea of a risk factor doesn’t make any sense to me. Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.”

Interesting, isn’t it? This is similar to what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Sure Thing. Gladwell argues that successful entrepreneurs, contrary to the conventional wisdom, actually don’t take risk. Instead, they are looking for “the sure thing”, the thing that can give them success with the least amount of uncertainty.
Knowing that Buffett has similar idea makes me really interested. Is it true? Is there really such a thing as risk-free success?
Here are five principles of risk-free success that I learn from The Warren Buffett Way:
1. Build your competence
If risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing, then eliminating risk means you must know what you’re doing. So it’s essential that you build your competence in the field you’re interested in. The best way to do that is by finding a mentor (Buffett was a mentee of Benjamin Graham) but you can also learn by reading books or talking with people. The important thing is that you should test your knowledge in the real world. It gives you the feedback necessary to quickly build your competence.
2. Never move out of your circle of competence
Everyone has a circle of competence. You need to know yours and be careful not to move out of it. Buffett, for instance, never invests in technology companies for the simple reason that he doesn’t understand them. Even during the dot-com boom when everyone rushed to buy technology stocks, he remained unaffected. Doing something outside of your circle of competence invites a great deal of risk.
3. Master your emotions
You might wonder: if people don’t know what they are doing, then why do they do it? The answer is that they can’t control their emotions. There are two primary emotions at work here: fear and greed. When they see that other people profit from a trade, greed makes them follow the crowd even though they don’t understand what they’re doing. And when they see that other people avoid something, they also follow the crowd because of fear. Your emotions make you do something that you don’t know. That’s why essential to master them.
4. Do your homework
It takes a lot of work to be certain about the prospect of a business. In Buffett’s case, he analyzes different aspects of the business such as its economic performance, management team, track record, and more. Only after doing the research can he be sure whether or not a business is worth investing in.
Similarly, you need to do your homework for the opportunities that come your way. Just because everyone else says that it’s good (or bad) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s indeed good (or bad).
5. Be patient
This is related to mastering your emotions, but I think it’s worth a deeper look. Patience is one important lesson I learn from Warren Buffett. He said that one strength of his company is, strangely, inactivity. Other managers are often “addicted” to activity which makes them trade a lot of mediocre stocks. Buffett, on the other hand, is patient enough to wait for the great opportunity to come. This is probably one of the biggest reason why people do what they don’t know: they can’t wait long enough. Greed (to get quick gains) or fear (of not looking good in front of others) are at play here.
The next time you are about to take a risk, stop for a moment and ask yourself:

  • Do I know what I’m doing?
    • Is it in my circle of competence?
    • Have I done my homework?
  • Do I master my emotions?
    • Are greed or fear at play?
    • Am I being impatient?

By being honest with your answers, you can avoid many unnecessary troubles.
Photo by Search Engine People Blog


  1. I like the 5th point. I also think this way. Very nice and helpful post I think!
    Thanks a lot for this, Donald!

  2. “Obey the law of enforced efficiency”
    i.e the fastest way to success is to do only what you are very good at doing.

  3. I like the point of emotional mastery. To learn from our emotions, identify and be able to label them, and learn to problem solve what they may be trying to tell us. Tony Robbins, in his book, Awaken the Giant Within, has a great chapter on emotional mastery that I highly recommend.

  4. Nice post with good references to Warren Buffet. Personally I’d say it’s best to venture outside your competence circle and get the best of other areas. Mainly because what you’re competent in may not be the most competent way. But, to create risk-free medium success staying inside would probably work. 🙂

  5. Roman,
    Glad you like it!
    That’s a nice quote.
    Thanks for the recommendation.
    That’s an interesting point to discuss. It seems that Warren Buffett has great – not medium – success with this approach.

  6. This is extremely useful info. One question I’m particularly curious about is how to establish your area of competence. Many of us don’t really have a specific area of expertise and it’s hard to stay in your area of competence when you’re mediocre in most everything.
    Any suggestions on how to develope that competence?

  7. Joe,
    Interesting question. To be competent at something, studies show that you need to do deliberate practice for about 10 years or 10,000 hours. Of course, you need to choose the field first. This article has some tips on that: http://www.lifeoptimizer.org/2009/03/31/finding-niche-10000-hours-practice/

  8. Thanks for the reply, that is great companion information. 10,000 hours, eah? I sure do need to figure out what I want to decide to be a world class expert in.
    But really, the first part of your answer was just as important as the 10,000 hours benchmark…deliberate practice. It’s not just enough to spend some time with a skill…you have to conciously and intentionally work at it. That is definitely an area I can work on, niche or not.
    You rock buddy.

  9. Joe,

    It’s not just enough to spend some time with a skill…you have to consciously and intentionally work at it.

    Exactly. By the way, if you are interested in deliberate practice, a good book you might want to read is Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

  10. […] more you know about something, the less the risks involved. But in the beginning, when you are working on something new, risks are inevitable. […]

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