Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Risk taking

Risk taking is something that continually fascinates me. It used to occupy my mind mainly in the context of running it out on scary trad routes. These days, more and more, I think of my risk taking in this environment as being quite simple most of the time. I either want to do the climb enough and feel able and willing to commit to it, or I don’t. Risk taking decisions in climbing are often quite formulaic. You put the pieces of information you have through the algorithm, and then churn out the decision. The spaces between the information get filled with intuition borne from experience (of past mistakes). Where you know you are relying on intuition, you must accept its limitations and be ready to escape as best you can if the adventure goes bad. If there is no intuition, no spaces between the data, there isn’t much excitement. Sport becomes robotic and dull.

More interesting are the more complex risks of life. Where the proportion of fragments of useful signal in the noise of unknowns are much scarcer. If I eat this, am I getting slightly more dead, or slightly closer to 8C? Will my life be better if I stay in the European Union? Given that the world is still turning after George W, will the end befall us under Donald Trump?

Still more tricky are parental decisions. My daughter balances along a wall. My head tells me there is only one way to learn about height: landing from a height. Better learning from a 3 foot drop than 30 foot. But learning carries the risk of things not working out well. There is no way around this. Avoiding short term risk during learning creates bigger risks later on. It’s why the rates of kids fractures go up, not down, when they replace the concrete with rubber flooring in play parks. Risky play is a serious business, of learning.

It was a year and a half ago now, but readers of this blog will remember that my take-home message from the referendum campaign for independence here in Scotland was that I resolved to be as fearless as possible in as many areas of my life as I could. I was left with a strong desire to rail against bias for the status quo until you have a path of solid data laid before you (data which can never be got without taking the leap and running the experiment). It colours my approach to many things, in my view in a good way. But I’ll not be offended if you read this and think differently. My perspective is that our norms are way too skewed in the direction of reluctance to experiment and take risks, and by pushing back against this, we get closer to an optimum balance. In other words, the tide of societal norms and especially media economics is constantly dragging us towards fearfulness. While the tide moves in this direction, we have to swim in the other direction, even just to stand still. I’m writing this post as much as anything to remind myself to keep up that resolve. I try every day, sometimes succeeding, sometimes badly failing. Failing is allowed. Failing to try is inexcusable.

As I get older I understand more and more that I have an appetite for taking risks in certain situations, even if the odds are not great. I don’t take stupid risks. You’ll never catch me in a bookmakers, for example. I’m also not that attached to the thrill of taking risks. I still get a wee bit scared to phone people I don’t know and things like that. I get no kick out of random risks, purely taken for the thrill. But if I’m curious about an outcome, I’ll gladly take a calculated risk to find out what will happen. In fact, I’ll find it harder not to take the risk. I find the status-quo an uncomfortable, stressful place. But pure indulgence of curiosity is not the only strand of motivation for risk taking for me. The need for change is another.

I heard an interesting quote the other day that there are only two things that drive significant change in a persons life; abject misery or profound inspiration.

If this is indeed true, then it is interesting because either will do. If you don’t have the inspiration, misery in its various forms will do just fine in its place. Maybe it’s just me but I feel myself getting gradually less tolerant of a part of our culture that is tyrannised by the need for data. I’m all for evidence, and the use of useful data. But life is full of unknowns - incomplete or absent data. Quite often the only way to get data is to go ahead and try, and learn the hard way. This is the rub for me - aversion to exploring areas with little data only succeeds in getting less data. If you are a data fiend, then the places where data does not exist are those that will feed your habit for more data.

If someone says “lets not try this until we have evidence”. The next question should be “can we get the evidence without trying it?” Life is far to short to get stuck in this dilemma all the time.


  1. That's excellent! The quote you give is truly profound. The Buddha also taught that the only reason we do ANYTHING is suffering and the desire to remove suffering. I too have noticed the trend to hide behind the 'lack of data' to avoid tough decisions, almost as if this is more 'scientific'. These ideas have tough implications for the environmental movement and the mantra of the precautionary principle. You must also be rather conflicted by the upcoming referendum!!!!

    Really enjoy your writing Dave, thanks.

  2. If on balance one's calculated risks prove positive, you will agree. If on balance they don't you will disagree. My data driven decision' have proven to be the best for me.

  3. Hello Dave, I enjoy reading your analysis, and its influenced me a lot. I would really appreciate it if you would have a look at my blog 'Climber in a Flat Land', and tell me what you think. http://flatlandclimber.blogspot.co.uk
    Thanks, Peter.

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  5. This puts into words what I've always felt. Will Gadd in a recent interview said that confidence and competence need to be well matched. In climbing and other things physical, competence and confidence follow each other as they grow incrementally. So many of us in our society are geared toward inaction when we possess neither, refusing the attempt to acquire them. Absolute assuredness never exists, not even in science. Because we fail to recognize that we are geared to grasp toward data for reassurance. Real learning and growth can only happen by doing.