By the time he was 32 years old, Ashley Revell had a net worth of $135,300. He knew this because he was holding it all in his hands. In the form of chips. As he stood before a Las Vegas roulette table.
Revell was a British man who had had a mad idea. What if he took all his savings, converted everything he owned to cash, and then gambled it on one spin of the roulette wheel? His entire life – double or nothing? This is probably the kind of thought that people have had since gambling was invented, but Revell had his idea in 2004, at the height of the reality show craze in the U.K. Revell pitched his idea to Sky One, a British TV channel, and they agreed to make a reality mini-series out of it. He was filmed selling all of his property – his truck, his television, his furniture, even his clothes – and the resulting cash, plus a little extra kicked in by corporate sponsors, totaled to $135,300. Sky One then loaned Revell some clothes and flew him and a camera crew to Las Vegas for the fateful spin.
He was taking an outrageous risk, and nothing he could do would reduce it. Choose red, or choose black; he still had less than a 50% chance of winning. (If the ball lands in green – 0 or 00 – then both red and black lose.) Revell was about to choose black when he was told that the live public vote being held in England at that moment was in favor of red. So he put his life on red and the croupier spun the wheel.
The ball landed in red. Revell doubled his money. People standing around him urged him to try again, and maybe quadruple his money, or at the very least to try his hand at some other Vegas game. But Revell merely tipped the croupier $600 and returned home with the remaining $270,000. Eventually he used the money to found his own online businesses.
Soichiro Honda might have related to Revell’s sale of his worldly possessions. In the 1930s, the young Japanese mechanic was keen to invent an improved version of the piston rings that auto manufacturers used to build their engines. When he wasn’t working in his day job at the Art Shokai garage in Tokyo, he was spending all his time and money on the development of the new piston rings. At one point, needing more cash, he sold off his wife’s jewelry. Honda was gambling on his family’s future.
He was taking an outrageous risk, but he did everything he could to reduce it. He devoted all his will, effort, and intelligence to the task. When it became clear that he simply didn’t understand the science as well as he needed to, he went back to school. Meanwhile, in his day job, he learned all he could about engine design and construction, eventually helping to create a new style of engine that, unlike other engines of the day, could run at high speeds without danger of overheating or exploding. Believing himself on the cusp of success, Honda sent samples of his new piston rings to Toyota for their consideration, and then, to demonstrate the new engine he’d helped design, drove Art Shokai’s entry in a high-speed road rally outside of Tokyo.
At the very end of that race, traveling at 75 m.p.h., Honda crashed into another car that had stopped unexpectedly at the finish line. His car and its engine were destroyed, and Honda spent three months recovering in a hospital. While he was there, he received word from Toyota: His new piston rings were totally unacceptable, and Toyota was not going to buy them or their design.
When Honda got out of the hospital, he did the only thing that made sense to him. He founded his own company, Tokai Seiki. He was taking an outrageous risk, but he was learning how to manage risk. Within two years, he had used what he’d learned from Toyota’s review of his earlier design to improve his new piston rings, to the point where Toyota agreed to contract with Tokai Seiki for their piston ring supply. It was a great success for Honda – except that Tokai Seiki had no manufacturing capacity. He needed to build a factory, but the Japanese government, gearing up for war, would not allow civilians like Honda to obtain the concrete that the military was hoarding for itself.
Another businessman, denied the opportunity to do business in concrete, might have given up. But Honda was an engineer, so he engineered a solution. He simply invented a new way to make concrete. Without the need for access to government-restricted materials, he was able to build two factories, which worked busily over the next several years, supplying Toyota and other companies with valuable mechanical parts. Of course, many of these parts became part of Japan’s vast World War II war machine, and it was inevitable that American bombers destroyed one of his factory buildings. Perhaps his other factory might have survived the war . . . but it was destroyed early in 1945 by a powerful earthquake. Foreseeing the end of the war and the small likelihood of being able to restart his auto parts manufacturing business in a nation in ruins, he sold the remnants of Tokai Seiki to Toyota for the equivalent of $4,500 – and spent a quarter of the proceeds to buy a still. He spent the next year drunk on homemade whiskey.
His business destroyed, his country a shambles, himself little more than a has-been lush, Honda knew just what to do next: He used everything he had left to found another company. He was taking an outrageous risk, but he’d learned that he had never achieved anything without risk. And he soon saw that his fellow Japanese, reduced to traveling almost exclusively by bicycle, had little need for an automotive engineer – but they went wild over someone who could make their bicycles move without pedaling. Honda created a tiny, cheap engine that turned bicycles into mopeds. They were a huge hit, and the scooters and motorcycles that followed were the basis upon which the Honda Motor Company became the multinational corporation it is today.
Ashley Revell and Soichiro Honda both had the nerve to face risk, something that everyone who wants true success and fulfillment has to do at some point. But taking on risk the right way takes more than nerve; you also have to understand what kind of risk you are taking, and shape your actions accordingly. In his own way, Revell succeeded because he knew when to stop taking risks. Honda succeeded because he knew when to keep going.