A Misunderstanding of Risk

1000 years ago, the amount of moves a peasant could take were limited. He understood the risk in his world well, but it isn’t because he was super smart. It’s because his world was small.

The world is now too big to understand how risky a single action can be. Still, some people are more adept at understanding risk than others.

How adept you are at assessing risk has a lot to do with how much practice you have. If you’ve never done it before, you don’t truly know what the consequences will be. This either prevents you from acting entirely or it changes what moves you will make.

One of the best ways to understand this is to watch parkour videos, or skateboarding videos. Here’s one that my friend Julie Angel made.

As you can see, risk is relative. These guys are not born geniuses with their bodies, they were made geniuses through scars and experience.

So, being able to assess risk does not mean you are special. More often than not, it just means you are practiced. And because most people are not willing to practice, most people are not good at assessing risk.

Meanwhile, those that get good at it get very good. Their understanding of the world grows. They see shortcuts where others do not. They take advantage of them. This is what parkour is all about: finding shortcuts through the environment.

Sometimes this is ok, and it’s moral. Some find loopholes, disrupting using technology which, at the core, helps make the human experience better. Other times, it’s largely about personal gain, and not about the human experience at all.

Everyone has to decide what place they want to occupy on the slider. Nothing is entirely black or white. To some people, getting a job through your connections is a lot like skipping the line at the airport. It pisses people off and seems wrong. To others, it seems perfectly fine.

As these Occupy Wall Street protests spread, I’ve been thinking a lot about risk and how it is misunderstood. I originally ended up in school and, had I not found it horribly boring, I probably would have graduated and tried to find a job in my field (likely social sciences). At 32 I would probably be making ok money and feeling like I was making my way in the world. Little would I know that dropping out and working horrible phone jobs for 5 years would eventually lead me to where I am today.

The situation is a bit the same for those who feel that the social contract has been broken for them. They were told to go to school and that it would make them more employable, but little did they know that the infrastructure beneath them is largely about money and risk avoidance, and designed for a factory system that is already filled to the brim with people who do not want to (or can’t) leave their jobs. They feel screwed, and I can relate. It could have been me.

You also see people who moved through the world and, through a series of coincidences and smarts, ended up making millions by finding loopholes that allow a disproportionate reward in comparison to the risk they’ve had to take. These people worked hard, and they’re probably smarter than average, so they feel they deserve what they got. After all, they found the loopholes and saw the world as it was, maybe. There will always be loopholes, after all, so there will always be people like this.

It’s almost like a game of snakes and ladders. Some people got bad directions from people they trusted and went in the wrong direction. Others happened upon ladders that got them places fast.

The problem is that we need to understand risk much more completely than we currently do– and there is no concrete method for doing so.

Imagine that you’re a child and that you’re afraid of the dark. This fear is in fact quite logical, and for millions of years, humans who did not fear the dark got eaten. Now, however, it’s useless. So your parents explain to you that you don’t need to be afraid, etc, and as time goes on, you are no longer afraid.

This system is what we need to understand the rest of the world. It needs to be organic and it needs to be complete, because the modern world is too unlike the world we evolved in. The system either needs to be taught to us, or we need to develop one.

Right now, it’s all about lucking upon the right answers– this is not how a fair, modern system should work.





13 responses to “A Misunderstanding of Risk”

  1. David W Avatar

    This is one of the better pieces on college, risk, life decisions, careers, and Occupy Wall Street all in one.

    Really, I’ve been thinking about these matters a lot over the last two years, and this was a great sum of it all.

    I wish I had more to say. Thanks for putting this together.

  2. NomadicNeill Avatar

    It’s amazing how the direction of your life can hinge on being exposed to certain knowledge or information.

    And in the modern world being ‘in’ on certain things has the potential to have a much bigger impact on an individuals life than in the past. Because there is so much information out there and it has the potential to make a bigger impact.

    It can be a bit of mind-fuck at times to be honest. You are only one click away from a blog post, website or video that could change your life for the better in an instant.

    The only way I’ve been able to cope with it is to never stop learning new ideas, trying new ways of doing things and by never assuming that I’ve got it all figured out.

    I don’t assume that the conventional experts know best and look to crowd-sourcing and regular people in the trenches for advice.

  3. John McLachlan Avatar

    You’re becoming quite the philosopher. I like really like this direction, Julien.

  4. Tony D Avatar

    When I moved to Montreal in 2008 I was somewhat shy and
    scared of women. I went there with the specific intent to approach as many pretty girls as possible, simply to get that area of my life handled. I had no idea that a few years later I would be paid to teach other guys how to do this.

    Your blog touches on the theme of risk often and I agree that high risk, and repetition usually means high reward. I really like your articles.

  5. Lisa Avatar

    True! The education system is grappling with this dilemma. Don’t know but I think the ship has hit the iceberg. They are learning to read to see the risks and opportunities of the new world as they redesign the ship.

  6. Cyberquill Avatar

    Our modern lifestyle has outpaced the speed of evolution, and our reptilian brains are particularly bad at assessing long-term risk, especially of a cumulative nature, i.e., all those things that are most likely to kill us. We fear snakes and lions, but our hands don’t tremble when holding that cigarette and that gin & tonic, even though the latter are much more likely to do us in than the former.

  7. Kyle Reed Avatar

    I wish I would have seen this disruption a lot sooner in life.

    But I wonder if I would be where I am at right now, 25 and starting a job that I absolutely love that I never applied for or even interviewed for.

    I just wonder if there is a way we can start education kids to start seeing things differently. to start understanding fear and risk and help them to get there faster then we did?

    Or does it come down to the fact that the journey is what brings the experience? I am all about gaming the system, but sometimes experience is needed before you can start moving forward. I think 🙂

  8. Peter Mis Avatar

    The world has changed dramatically. There probably were some signs it was coming, but I think most of us simply never expected this. I don’t recall getting the memo.

    I don’t blame anyone for breaking the social contract. All I know is that it’s broken and it’s never going to be put back together again in the way we’ve always known it.

    But it’s really all about where we go from here. Those who sit back and wait for things to get better will be waiting a long time. It’s time to become your own Madonna…reinvent yourself and keep moving forward.

    Great post Julien. Thank you!

    1. Michele Price (@prosperitygal) Avatar

      Peter you hit the nail on the head, waiting for things to get better or pining for the “good ole days” is wasted energy. Just like a criminal is misdirected energy of brilliance. Awe damn you gave me another blog post to write ( head to desk) chuckle.

  9. Howard Stein Avatar

    There doesn’t appear to be enough time to enjoy all the patterns of risk. Each day they rise, and then fall away. If one learns to love uncertainty, it is difficult, and time consuming to corral disruptive events into patterns we can interpret. Maybe I’m getting older and feeling seriously hurried. Maybe I need a canoe.

  10. mark Avatar

    Yesterday I drew on my face with a washable marker during the middle of a lecture. The class was tired, and I was tired, and we all need some “aesthetic kick-in-the-ass.”

    My principal comes by often; this could have been an issue. But it would pass when he knew I hadn’t had a (total) break w/reality, and (knowing him), he’d probably highlight it as “positive deviation.”

    Risks, like aesthetic experiences, keep humans human. Thanks for risking smart writing at the risk of disappointing the masses.

  11. Monica Avatar

    Excellently written!

    This particular blog subject touches me on many levels: I only know how to take calculated risks. All my life this has left me in situations where I feel my path has steered me onto ….the wrong rail track, seeing the right one…somewhere in the distance, all curvy and squiggly and fun, instead of the one I always find myself on: straight, boring and predictable.

    The seed is in me to take risks – un-calculated ones – because I feel the excitement coming on with every idea or intuition I have – but yet…the fear of “not knowing where it will lead” – stops me dead in my tracks every single time.

    I am tired of this. I want to learn how to jump into the moment when it feels right and not let my head “calculate the potential outcome on all levels”.

    It is not easy and not every one can do it. There is a study somewhere I read that right-brainers have an easier time following their intuition and run with it: meaning taking risks and fabulously succeeding.

    Unfortunately, I have been diagnosed with being both, so there is a tug-of-war going on in my head at any given moment…lol.

    To all the risk-takers: I envy you! Keep being successful. 😉

    1. Daniel Avatar

      Great article and fascinating subject for me. I identify with the fear of uncertainty commments. It has plagued me for the last 20 years. Monica, I think I may be a right and left brainer too.I too get very excited about intuitive ideas + notions, and I too stop dead because I start trying to imagine a realistic path of how and where this new fantastic idea could lead me. And…..I too am very tired of being like this. I know I would benefit from some form of therapy, perhaps NLP, but I earn very little and I don’t have the funds to pay for it. How does one get “diagnosed” for this?

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