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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Newspaper column for this week...

Here's my column for this week ... goes to about a dozen papers in BC. Comments always welcome.


What’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken? I pondered that question and it led to some interesting memories. Was it traveling where I shouldn’t have, which led to a sub-machine gun being held shakily against my forehead by a nervous teenage soldier? Was it driving a three-ton truck for the first time, up a narrow cliff-edge track in a snowstorm on Baffin Island? Or was it wandering through New York’s Central Park in the dark, with the noise of rats scuttling in the bushes and footsteps racing up behind me on the path?

It is a paradox that while we strive to reduce risk in our lives - many of us also seek the experience of putting ourselves at risk.

We live in a society inundated with risk aversion and caution. I pay for insurance for these things: health care, my teeth, a house, two vehicles, a business, our children and my life itself. Society protects us at every turn – seatbelts, bike helmets, no smoking by-laws, health inspections, immunizations, traffic signs and now… no lipstick on airplanes. It sometimes feels as though these boundaries and rules surround me like an unseen, yet tangible net.

Some suggest that one reaction to this complex web of protection may be an increase in thrill seeking behaviour. Unsafe sexual behaviour, abuse of drugs and alcohol, injury-prone extreme sports, foolish stunts (teenage boys come to mind) and travel to remote or dangerous destinations are all examples.

Another paradox around risk is that our perceptions and behaviour are often at odds with reality – we often worry about the wrong things. Psychologists tell us that our assessment of risk is increased if a situation or event is unfamiliar. People will estimate a situation as even more risky if it is one that produces a feeling of dread. Additionally, people are more likely to rate the risk as higher if the exposure to the situation is involuntary, and higher still if they feel they lack personal control over the events in question. The evening news comes to mind…

I might lie sleepless at night, worrying about Mad Cow Disease, West Nile Virus, youth crime and terrorists on the flights I take. If I were to worry based on evidence instead, I should think about driving my car safely to town or about gripping the handrail as I descend the stairs for coffee in the morning. Why? Because the most common causes of death from unintentional injury for most Canadians are motor vehicle crashes and falls.

How do we deal with these contradictions? There is a balance to be found in enjoying a full and free life, while also considering risk. Seek accurate information and be thoughtful about your actions. Parents should learn about what risks their children face and provide protection and guidance to them, appropriate to their age.

There are different approaches to finding the balance between caution and bold action.

Artist Vincent Van Gogh offered cautionary words, “Great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought together.”

Encouraging bold action, writer Mark Twain advised, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Finally, Confucius proposes the philosophical middle road, “Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before taking action. Twice would have been quite enough.”

Brilliant post, Gary. It is so true that we often live in fear of so many things that we are paralyzed by them and end up living in a tiny little (supposedly) safe box. I often try to remind myself of the saying, "Do you know how old you'll be by the time you can actually do that? Yes, the same age I'd be if I didn't do anything at all." You've given me something positive to think about today--many thanks!
you insure your teeth?! how much is that for fire and theft? ;o)

i found that my aversion to risk went up as soon as i became a parent. once they're settled, i'm hoping it'll come down again - they say life begins at (insert appropriate age here). lol.

we are made to fear risk - it's big business! it makes people part with their money and it keeps them in check. half of those things i'd be in ingorance of if they didn't tell me i should be worried. so i'm worried about my teeth now, gary. what can happen to my teeth?! :o(
Maybe Gary you need to know what you don’t know, so you’re better able to assess what risks to take!! What do I mean by this seemingly contradictory statement?

One of the few things Donald Rumsfeld said to which I concur is “You need to know what is known about what is unknown so you know what is unknown”. On first “blush” the statement appears contradictory and obscure. Is it the ramblings of an ageing commander spruiking flawed statements of fleeting logic?

His statement is remarkably relevant to my Industry. We need to know what is not known (claims likely to be incurred but not as yet reported-hence not known!) so that when financial statements are prepared adequate provisions are made for what is not known.

How do you know what is not known? You need to know from previous trends and pre-existing conditions what is likely to occur (what is unknown) so that in the end you know what is unknown.
Are we going to see increased claims from wind and flood as a consequence of global warming? - I think so!! The large scale losses increases are in almost exact correlation with the increased temperature reported from global warming.

If you don’t know what is unknown you will make inaccurate provisions that will result in either over stated or understated financial results compared to the actual results when all of the claims years have been finalised. Your buying re insurance years in advance, based upon unknowns that you need to quantify.

So In life it is not dissimilar as we also need to be able to assess the unknowns and make calculated risks, without being either overly cautious or reckless!!
Just as good governments should!!

Best wishes
Thanks Sothis - love the saying.

Very funny Ian! Hey, maybe I can get insurance for teeth theft...

Yes, Rummy's poetry of the absurd has a certain logic to it, doesn't it Lindsay? He's an idiot nonetheless, but that's a different post...

"we also need to be able to assess the unknowns and make calculated risks, without being either overly cautious or reckless" - not a bad summary.
Hey Gary,
i shall change my stance... maybe you're not in the 'know' as yet.. because from the above post, all that i could gather is that you're not sure if you should take risks, like you did when you were younger, or if you should live a full and free life...

have you ever pondered that perhaps to live a full and free life one needs to take risks...each day has been a risk..even before we were born..ask any pregnant woman, she's always careful not to miscarry... death is the final answer, so i guess we should take risks...

one shoudl not arrive at the grave in a well preserved body, instead one should skid into it, kicking, screaming, wildly gesticulating, exhilirant and shouting, "WOW what a ride"...
I like those quotes at the end. They make for a good conclusion.

Thank you for not mentioning bird flu or I would have to rip my hair out. I'm sick to death of HEARING about bird flu.

I would be interested to hear more about those stories you alluded to in the beginning. Sounds very interesting.

Great post.
An interesting and thoughtful post (and just to prove it to you, here goes...).

I think this one might have come out a bit differently if you had contrasted risk with trust. But then (out of the dualism, into the monism), trust is a risk, is it not?
Certainly to trust, whether in a person or a thing, involves some amount of risk.
Further, trust is one of those things rarely seen in absolutes, whether to its most positive factor or its most negative.

Consider this:
In my younger days, I thought that farting on elevators was a blast (pardon the pun). You just stand in the elevator like nothing's up, and then break loose right as your stepping out.
In my little sociological study, most people would rather stay in the elevator with my fart than wait for the next call.

Even riding an elevator can present a risk. Standing in there next to someone, you're also trusting them not to fart. That risk/trust thing again....

And I really like your headline there.
Of course, writing headlines can be risky business....

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