"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Risk-taking–Why It Is Important And Why It Is Discouraged

Peter Beaumont is a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber.  He recounts the indescribable thrill of taking life-threatening risks http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/15/pete-beaumont-free-in-the-mountains (Did his name, Beaumont or ‘beautiful mountain’ have anything to do with his avocation?)

So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."

Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:

Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.

At the same time a conservative and increasingly litigious society is encouraging risk-avoidance. Playgrounds are now ‘safe’ with the see-saws, high slides, monkey bars, and high-pitch swings gone.  We are hectored by government to stop smoking, wear seatbelts and crash helmets, eat like ascetics, practice safe sex, drink responsibly, and a raft of other proscriptions against risk.  Little children wear helmets on three-wheelers; kids do not go Trick-or-Treating even in secure, safe, neighborhoods where everyone is known.  Children wear flame-retardant clothes ‘just in case’.   The world is portrayed to children as a fundamentally dangerous place, and in order to survive, they must avoid all risk.  While many of these interdictions have a social reason behind them – your risk inevitably involves others – and therefore are valid; the effect of a society bound and determined to regulate behavior and to eliminate risk is to neuter the risk-taking impulse altogether.

Only in a few places is risk-taking encouraged – Silicon Valley and Wall Street.  Failure, say the IT geeks in the Bay Area, is a form of success.  If you stretch the limits of your imagination and of your world to come up with a new product, you are likely to fail; but you will learn from your failures with your all important risk-taking behavior intact.  On Wall Street the old adage “the higher the risk, the higher the profit” was never more true; and while the Street has recently taken a beating for its successes, those who take great risks are richly rewarded. Those in the business talk of the exhilarating thrill of the risk and the chase.

The problem is that if risk-taking is discouraged from an early age and if the prevailing social culture is one of risk-aversion, then Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and any other industry that depends of innovation will be less competitive.

Beaumont writes about another more personal and poetic aspect of risk-taking – it can be liberating, and meaningful:

So while you can find risk-minimising disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.

For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.

One of the reasons physical risk-taking – mountaineering, extreme biking and snowboarding, racing – is discouraged is because our life expectancy has increased so dramatically; and if you are extremely careful and judicious you just might live to 90 and beyond.  Not so in Elizabethan times and earlier when disease, accident, wars, and treachery ended your time on earth by 30.  You never expected to live long.  Death was more of a reality than life.  Death on the battlefield was an honor.  Death from the plague or the ‘sweating sickness’ was an inevitability.  Death in childbirth and infancy the rule.  Today not only is the prospect of living until 90 good, but if we play our cards right and do the needful we can live to 100….and maybe even beyond.  Perhaps there is a cure for cancer around the corner and 120 might even be possible.  Better be careful.  It seems counter-intuitive to welcome risk when life is so short and avoid it when it is long; but the facts are clear.  In a world of death, the values of life were even more important, regardless of how brief.

This is what Beaumont is talking about – recovering the exhilaration of life that is risked.  In his case it is risked for the transcendent beauty of the mountains.  For the noble officer in the army of Henry V it was for the honor, tribute, and renown of dying heroically.  Duels were fought over honor; physical challenges were exhibitions of character, strength, and nobility.   Of course the soldiers in the trenches before Agincourt wondered why they were being sent to their death because of Henry’s flimsy claims to the French crown and there was no particular nobility of an arrow through their heart; but most soldiers did rally for country and king.  Today war is as risk-averse as most American endeavors.  The goal is not only to win, but to minimize casualties.  In most cases this risk-aversion contributes to overall defeat.  War is a profession, a means of access to benefits and a boost to career.

For the 99 percent of Americans who are not on Wall Street or with the Silicon Valley giants, the desire for for transformative risk-taking experiences is minimal; but with one exception.  The rates for infidelity keep rising.  It is exhilarating to have sexual adventures, particularly where there is risk involved.  It is one thing to have girlfriends when you are single; but to risk your marriage or your long-term relationship is something else altogether.  The thrill of new sex, different laughter, different eyes, different spirit are all the more heightened if the liaison is dangereuse.

Maybe, in the final analysis, it is all as simple as the notion expressed by the late Joe Tasker in the postscript to his book Savage Arena: that the business of climbing exerts a constant and magnetic curiosity. "I had never planned to go to the mountains so often nor to keep on going," he wrote. "But I had come to see that there was was something new and different there each time I went … Rather than being a matter of ticking off achievements or notching up a list of summits reached, visiting the mountains had come to be a way of life."

I think that this sentiment applies to all risk-taking whether in the mountain or in bed.  It is a life-affirming curiosity and revelation.  Life led without risk is by nature mundane, routine, and repetitious; but a life with risk opens the eyes, gets the blood and adrenaline going.  You know you are alive.

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