Good risk, bad risk – Robert Rowland Smith

Good risk, bad risk – Robert Rowland Smith 

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Introduction – Good risk, bad risk

“Did you hear the one about the man who heard that most accidents happen at home? He decided to move house.”

This joke about one man’s short-sightedness hides an important truth about risk. Namely, that the home is indeed the riskiest place you can be. From falling down the stairs to slipping in the shower to cutting your finger while you’re chopping vegetables, the home concentrates a raft of potential dangers. So much so that the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Jared Diamond, who spends much of his time in the remote rainforest of Papua New Guinea, where the absence of medicines and the presence of snakes brings considerable hazards of its own, would still maintain that Western homes contain the greater danger. One of the greatest of all is literally lurking in our cupboards, in the form of salt, conspirator in the rise of heart disease. Diamond cites a particular pizza available in California that contains more salt than that consumed by a typical resident of Papua New Guinea’s jungle in an entire year.

  1. Real versus perceived risk

There’s an obvious point to draw from this fact about the dangers lurking in our homes: we should take a lot more care. But there’s also a subtler side. Ask most people what they consider to be the riskiest things to do, and the chances are they will put flying in a plane somewhere near the top of the list.

“The truth is, however, that taking a flight is one of the least risky things you can do, because statisticatty the number of accidents compared to the number of flights taken is minuscule.”

In other words, between perceived risk and actual risk there lies quite a gulf. True, a plane crash tends to be fatal, whereas stubbing your toe on the leg of your kitchen table probably won’t result in instant death, so the assessment of risk is a little more complex, but still, we tend to perceive higher risks where they are lower, and vice versa. The perception of risk doesn’t take place in a vacuum, however. There are two main factors that drive how much risk we perceive in the world around us. The first is personal, the second is cultural.

The personal aspect of risk is probably most known to us through what’s become known as our ‘risk profile’. It’s a phrase that routinely comes up with financial advisers and mortgage brokers, but it extends beyond the world of money. Essentially, you are asked whether you’re someone who prefers to take low, medium or high risks. We know people who engage in risky relationships, for example, by having affairs with married men or doing business with people whose credentials are dodgy. We also know those whose low-risk profile means that when invited, say, to try a new food on holiday, like octopus or goat, they’ll always say no. But perhaps unsurprisingly, most people self-identify in the ‘medium’ category. After all, it’s risky to identify yourself as high risk. For quite other reasons, it’s also risky to identify yourself as low risk or ‘risk-averse’, the risk in this case being more of a social one – you don’t want to be seen as low risk because it’s not very rock and roll.

In other words, our attitude to risk works as a symbol or index of our personalities more broadly. No doubt, being a high-risk personality brings its glamour – think not just of rock stars, but also entrepreneurs and innovative scientists – but most of us don’t actually sit in this outlier category, by definition. So when we say we are ‘medium risk’ we are saying we are certainly not dull enough to be low risk, but not quite gifted or mad enough to sit at the other end of the spectrum. However, it’s worth mentioning the book by risk theorist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, called Antifragile. Taleb vigorously counsels against defaulting to a medium-risk profile on the grounds that doing so is merely hedging your bets, or making a fudge.

“He says the best approach to risk is to adopt a base toad of very tow risk but to spice it up with a few very high risks at the other end.”

He gives the example of people who take on a boring job to pay the rent but spend their evenings writing the next master work of Western literature in the hope of a Nobel prize. Or one might even think of Barack Obama: most of the time a prudent, careful policy maker, but also the man who ordered the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

This strategy pushes you either side of the bland middle ground. The result is that instead of a fudge, you get the best of both worlds, the safety of the low-risk base end and the thrill of the white-knuckle top end. You’re both very boring indeed and incredibly interesting.

As for the cultural aspect of risk, it’s probably fair to say that as a society our sensitivity to risk has increased dramatically in the past generation. Consider our attitude to letting children play outside, whether it’s allowing them to kick a ball about in the street or head off to the local playground. During my childhood, in the 1970s, that was the norm. Children would go out to play and wander home either singly or in groups, generally unscathed. No doubt there were some occasions when bad things happened, but if they did they seemed very much the exception or weren’t reported much.

“Today, we have a cottective paranoia about letting children out of our sight.”

Thanks to high-profile cases like the abduction of Madeleine Mccann, plus the widespread and near hysterical media coverage of paedophile rings, we, especially if we are parents, worry that merely opening the front door is to invite child-snatchers – modern­day Pied Pipers – to whisk our young charges away to dark places where unspeakable evils will be perpetrated. And even if things aren’t always quite so wicked, we all now breathe the infamous ‘health and safety’ atmosphere, such that even sending our kids to play in the garden makes us have the first aid kit at the ready. Let alone letting them go out in the sun. In the ’70s we were routinely scorched to a crisp; today’s kids are so slathered in sunblock they probably run the opposite risk of vitamin D deficiency.

So risk is in the air culturally, prompting us all to be
a little more risk-alert than we used to be. And it’s not just at the domestic level. Since the financial crisis of 2007 /8, compounded with the scandal of MPs’ expenses and other examples of corporate malpractice stretching back to Enron, we’ve become more sensitised than ever to a set of risks at the level of what could be called national infrastructure. The more or less explicit question has become, “Can we trust the people who are running the country?” It seems it has become a risk just to be a citizen. And that’s not even to mention the increased riskiness
of being a Westerner in a world where the very label provokes hatred among certain constituencies.

“An innocence appears to have been lost, thereby heightening a sense of risk that plays out nowhere more conspicuously than in the zeal for ‘transparency’.”

Those risks I have just mentioned, though ‘national’, aren’t easy to disentangle from their global context, of course, and much as we thrill to the prospect of globalisation and the opportunities it affords, we are equally wary of the sheer unpredictability that globalisation brings. Although the many risks implied in globalisation tend to be hard to identify specifically, there is one that we are all subject to in the most physical form. I am speaking of the health risks that increase with global interconnectivity. From AIDS to SARS and beyond to the pandemics that the World Health Organization warns will multiply as a direct consequence of increased levels of international travel, we global citizens have created and continue to foster an environment that viruses just adore. Once upon a time there was an old-fashioned thing called ‘quarantine’, which aimed to contain health risks in a rather literal fashion by holding suspect produce or animals at airports, inhibiting their dissemination, but how do you put whole travelling populations, who may or may not be harbouring a virus, in a container? It’s just not feasible.

If the spread of viruses can pretty safely be attributed to changes in human behaviour, particularly in the form of cross-border activity, then the more ambiguous, indeed more controversial, global risk with which we are all now contending, presents itself under the rubric of ‘climate change’. The 2014 conference on climate change dolefully warned of both the inevitability and gravity of changes in global temperatures and the consequences that would follow, even if the ultimate causes, man-made or natural, remain more broadly the subject of fierce debate. The point for us is that here is another face with which we are confronted by risk. Our homes will be at risk of flood, our food supply will be at risk of getting cut off, our borders will be at risk of incursion by people whose presence will incite a whole series of other, equally heated debates.

“The earth itself is a risk factory, not a neutral space in which we only have to worry about local risks and managing them this way or that.”

There’s a paradox, though. Changes in human behaviour may well have served the virus’s cause, and yet it’s hard to blame any individual. If I catch swine flu, I don’t curse myself so much as my luck. Whether the risk was in my control or not is a moot point. Other cases are more straightforward. There’s no doubt a risk of an asteroid hitting the earth at some point, but little we can do about it. But say I take the risk of being a whistle-blower. Say I’m a NHS nurse and I witness the surgeon turning up drunk to work. He’s senior to me, people may not believe me, I could lose my job, plus my name could end up in the papers. What do I do? The right thing is probably to name and shame, but by heavens, it’s risky. I experience the risk to me as just as bad as the risk to the surgeon’s patient. What’s more, I work in an environment that defines risk-aversion – a hospital – and in a time when ‘risk management’ has become an industry of its own.

Given this panoply of risks, it’s not surprising that risk has moved so decisively from the back to the front of our minds, and with it become a leading character in the narrative of modernity. At every level, from the micro of the home to the macro of the planet, it appears that an intensification of risk has occurred. This makes it easy to forget that it wasn’t always thus.

Only a generation ago, for example, towards the end of the twentieth century, a period clearly not devoid of risks of its own – remember the chiliastic tension that built up around Y2K? – it seemed, for a brief moment, that many of the world’s risks had been thankfully sloughed off. The Cold War was over, 9/11 hadn’t happened, talk of climate change was little more than disgruntled ravings from a lunatic fringe, Internet porn had yet to present itself on screens for the eyes of children, and people were still blithely borrowing lots of money on their mortgages from banks who were ready to lend it. That’s quite a change from today, and it raises the question of whether our near-paranoia about risk today stems from the fact that we were caught out so massively before. Were we lulled into a sense of security? Are we now overcompensating to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Of course, it would be false to claim that we’ve simply lurched from one sensibility to another, as if in the good old days we’d swing merrily from the chandeliers whereas now we’re forever taping down the electric cables onto the carpets. In things like extreme sports and survival adventures, there are signs of a counter-culture that could be labelled as ‘risk tourism’. And of course, all too many people continue to practise ‘risky’ lifestyles in a somewhat less explicit or conscious fashion. I mean risky lifestyles as seen from a health perspective, that include over-indulging in alcohol, sugar, fat, and the aforementioned salt, while conspicuously under­indulging in exercise. We have also seen a second, or perhaps third, wave, of sexual promiscuity since the 1960s, especially now that the terror which once surrounded HIV has somewhat receded, while the actual incidence of HIV and other STDs is actually on the increase. There’s your difference between perceived and actual risk again.

“Sex is gradually being reclaimed as the good risk. it always was, and it’s perhaps what ties behind the phenomenon of  ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.”

What’s sexy about sex is an element of risk, in the sense that sex is a crime we can legally commit. When we venture into the kinkier, more fantasy-based practices described by E. L. James, we are flirting not just with our partner in the erotic crime, we are more generally standing on a boundary between safe and unsafe, and the risk of that brings a thrill. It’s risque, after all. But even these acts of risk rebellion take place against an assumption that risk is essentially something to be avoided. The very word ‘risk’ seems to be synonymous with ‘danger’, with the consequence that it’s hard for us not to default to thinking that all risk is bad. When someone tells us that we would be ‘taking a risk’ by following a certain course of action – say by ignoring travel advice not to drive during a snowstorm – we tend to hear the phrase to mean that we’re being stupid, and that the situation is unambiguously dangerous. But of course this is not, strictly speaking, what ‘taking a risk’ actually means.

“Taking a risk, by definition, does not mean facing certain danger, because risk is what arises precisely where certainty is tacking.”

Risk means being confronted with uncertainty, which is quite different. It means stepping into an arena of probability in which good outcomes also have their place. Risky it may be to drive on ice, but this doesn’t mean you definitely won’t make it to the other end. You might, you might not. If only we could be so rational. Typically, it’s the perception of risk we always come back to – as opposed to the reality – and this suggests in turn a problem. We either think things are more dangerous than they are, which paralyses us, or fail to appreciate the risk just over the horizon, and so drive off the
cliff. We need some way of compensating for both errors. One way, as I’ve said, is to realise that ‘risk’ is actually a neutral term, just a factor involved in any decision. Another is to reframe it more positively so we recognise the connection between taking risks and fulfilling our potential.

2. The joy of risk

In other words, risk doesn’t have to be bad, and the bias towards thinking it so is probably due a correction. So let’s consider a few cases in which risk is not only good, but is our friend – even the very stuff of what it means to be alive. Earlier I mentioned how anxious we’ve become about letting children out of our sight. That anxiety belongs to a larger nervousness about controlling the activities and the destinies of our children, by forcing them through more exams and tests than are reasonable, for example. But childhood in general is a time for finding out, for making the mistakes from which children learn, all of which necessitate a certain level of risk.

“The most vivid example would be learning to ride a bike. At a certain point, you have to take the risk of your mum or dad letting go.”

You don’t learn to ride a bike if they cling on, or if you never remove the stabilisers. It’s the very taking of risk that leads to the ability to ride. In a paradox that exercised a mind no lesser than Einstein’s, the safest thing you can do when riding a bike is to actually take a risk – to take a risk on the extremely unlikely proposition that you’ll be able to balance on two wheels. Not only balance on two wheels, in fact, but be able to move at speed! Risk is the only way ahead, the path to development and delight.

It would appear that taking the risk necessary to riding a bike stands as a metaphor for risk more generally, that life is a risk that’s there to be taken. But it’s not a one-off. When we learn to ride a bike we are heading into the unknown, leaving the self that couldn’t ride in our slipstream. In other words, risk is a cousin of development. You can’t change unless you take the risk of giving yourself away, or at least giving up some part of yourself.

Say you’ve been long estranged from your parents. You’ve become attached to the idea that your parents were bad, that they let you down, that they were far from ideal. This story about them has become a defining part of who you are – someone with suboptimal parents. But if you want to move on, you have to take the risk of letting this story about yourself go, and make your peace with them. It feels risky, it feels really risky, because you’re risking who you’ve become. But who you’ve become doesn’t have to be who you’ll be forever. You could yet become the adult who loves his or her parents again.

There’s another, less trying, more joyful experience, that follows a similar logic as regards the necessity of risk to the furtherance of life. I’m referring to falling in love. The very phrase is instructive: what is a ‘fall’ if not a risky activity? Falling probably defines riskiness, because when you fall, you assume you’re going to hit the ground with a bump, probably a calamitous bump to boot. But in love, you fall, and you fall, and you keep on falling, and if it feels in part scary, which it is – after all, you’ve given your heart away – it’s also exhilarating. It’s exhilarating because of the risk, exhilarating because instead of bridling at the uncertainty that comes with love, instead of inserting ‘love’ on a line in your risk register and monitoring it for threatening developments, you’ve embraced it and made it your own.

“You give yourself away, and in doing so you win yourself back along with interest in the form of the person you love.”

It’s a sublime gamble over which you had little control, but which pays off as long as you let yourself fall. Of course there’s a somewhat less rapturous version of this love-risk that arises when or if love turns into marriage. Taking the plunge of tying the knot (there I go risking a mix of metaphors) brings with it the risk implicit in any promise. You don’t know for sure if you’re going to be rich or poor for ever, whether you’ll become sick or remain in fine fettle, whether you’ll have good or bad times, and so there’s an essential risk built in to the project of a life lived together, but it’s a risk you’re prepared to take because that love you fell into gives you the courage.

“Even the most risk-averse people get married, which constitutes another paradox, if you think about it.”

We may have come to view marriage as the steady state, a condition of predictable monogamy and the gradual slipping of standards, but beneath it lies the taking of perhaps the biggest risk of our lives. To marry is to take what is literally a lifelong gamble – ’til death do us part. So instead of thinking that ticking the ‘married’ box makes you dull, you should think he opposite. You took a risk, and you took it, what’s more, in the context of having taken the greater risk of giving away your heart.

Risk is on the side of life, to put it boldly. A life lived without risk involves locking yourself indoors, and we know what dangers lurk on this side of the front door anyway. This reminds us that risks not taken can curdle into regrets. On our death beds, it’s unlikely we’ll be congratulating ourselves on the prudent savings plan we began in our teens: the pangs of conscience will relate to the girl we wish we had kissed, the job abroad we turned down, the start-up we dithered about joining, only to see it become a roaring success while the established company we stayed with gradually ran out of steam.

“We also know, in any case, that risk is what makes the world go round, because it’s the willingness to take a risk that is the vital quality you need if you’re going to start up a business, or set out on a new project.” 

Any ‘enterprise’ involves heading into uncharted waters, for without risk there’d be nothing enterprising, nothing entrepreneurial, about it at all. I’m not just saying that you’ve got to speculate to accumulate, though that truism will never wear out, I think. I’m saying that risk-taking, despite us associating it with vice, is at least as much a virtue. The great enterprises of our day involved their founders at some point taking a significant risk – going out on a limb, betting the farm, following a hunch. Like their counterparts in the world of science, from Copernicus who risked vilification by declaring the earth went round the sun to our friend Einstein who risked the totally counter-intuitive proposition that time is relative, our entrepreneurs became the people they became by venturing an idea that most people were ready to laugh at. How would the rights of women ever have been established if the suffragettes hadn’t risked their livelihoods by going on strike, waving flags, and raising the consciousness of the nation? History remembers the risk-takers, not the ones who stayed at home, burning their fingers on the grill.

So, yes, it’s perfectly understandable that we’ve become the risk-averse creatures that we have. The risks around us seem real and present. We can’t run away from them. But let’s not get so obsessed with managing risk that we forget to live. Sometimes risk is its own reward.

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