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Why life should be a risky business

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, 1929. Credit: Roger Viollet / Getty

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, 1929. Credit: Roger Viollet / Getty

August 22, 2019   5 mins

Why do we take risks? It’s a question that’s at the top of my mind, having spent most of August in Edinburgh performing my new show about risk. That in itself was something of a gamble – financially, emotionally, and for the long-term health of my liver.

It is, of course, impossible to avoid risk completely. You could stay indoors and reduce your risk of death from lightning, transport accidents or being attacked by strangers. But that would only increase your long-term risk of chronic health problems and early death, thanks to physical inactivity and social isolation.

So let me rephrase that: why do we take the risks we do?

I suppose we could make our life decisions based on mathematics. And before doing anything we could calculate the odds of success. Or, assess by how much a favourite vice would increase the chances of getting a horrible disease.

But we don’t do the maths. Not because we’re stupid – but because we’re human, and we live in a messy human world, most of which can’t be reduced to numbers.

A great illustration of this is The Norm Chronicles, by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter. It’s the story of Norm (or Average Man) but also of Prudence (who tries to avoid all risks) and an expanding family of characters called Kevin or Kelvin, who take every risk going. Spiegelhalter is a statistician, so the book does a fine job of using numbers to get some perspective on risk and danger. But The Norm Chronicles is much more than a maths book.

It is also a highly entertaining read, as the characters’ varying attitudes to risk get them into comical or hair-raising scenarios. Whether through embracing risk, or excessive desperation to avoid it, Kelvin, Prudence and Norm allow us to laugh at exaggerated versions of ourselves, and then reflect on how we make decisions in the real world.

“Although we recognise the patterns in numbers as much as anyone,” the authors write, (modestly), “we can’t bring ourselves to say that any of our characters are irrational in choosing to ignore them and going their own way.”

After all, rational calculation, based on data from the past and present, only gets us so far with making decisions that commit us to one or other branch of our infinite possible futures. At some point you have to go with your feelings – and make a choice about which future self you want to become, while accepting that you don’t know, and can’t fully control, the consequences of your decision.

Which brings us neatly to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition – my second recommendation. Her subject is the inherent unpredictability of human action.

“This is not simply a question of inability to foretell all the logical consequences of a particular act, in which case an electronic computer would be able to foretell the future,” she writes, “but arises directly out of the story which, as the result of action, begins and establishes itself as soon as the fleeting moment of the deed is past.”

For Arendt, action begins a story in the human world, and so gains meaning when looked back at from the future. It’s not only the material consequences that can’t be certain before the event, but what the story, and hence the meaning, will ultimately be. And that’s inherently unpredictable because it’s a story involving other human beings, each of whom is also free to act.

Risk today is most often used in a negative sense; it is deemed to be something we should control, minimise or avoid altogether. Being ‘At-Risk’ is now an adjective, a condition that may infect you if you’re unlucky enough to live in the wrong postcode, have the wrong family, or fall into the wrong socio-economic bracket. Most of us are encouraged to see ourselves as At-Risk to some degree – of crime, or diabetes, or mental illness.

Deliberately putting oneself at risk, or taking risks, is seen as irresponsible, or immoral. Even in a financial context, where risk is acknowledged as an inevitable part of investment, regulation is designed to quarantine and contain it.

As Arendt reminds us, however, risk is intrinsic to action. Statistics can help us assess our options, but we can never know all the consequences before we decide what to do.

Many of the things that make us safer today than our ancestors started out as highly risky projects. Commercial flight is one of the safest ways to travel, mile for mile, but we owe it to the pioneers who threw themselves into thin air, in mechanisms whose performance was an unknown quantity. Nuclear power is seen as uniquely dangerous; but the move from coal has saved over a million lives, which would mainly have been lost to mining accidents or air pollution.

Beyond these pragmatic reasons, though, we need to value risk-taking as fundamentally human. Look, by way of illustration, at what I’ve spent the past month doing. Why did I choose to bring a new show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? I’m no longer making my living as a professional comedian, so I’m not trying to be ‘discovered’ or to land a comedy agent. I could have spent August in the garden, reading and working on my next book, instead of accosting strangers with leaflets, and then offering myself for their judgement daily on a tiny stage in a dark basement.

I’m here because I feared that my life was getting too safe. I felt that I had fallen into the habit of only doing things that I know I can do, and foresaw my envelope of comfort shrinking to become a straitjacket. And I wanted to find out what I was capable of, onstage with a live audience and limited control over what will happen in each show.

Only through this willingness to start something new in ignorance of how the tale will end, can we discover, and reveal to others, who we are. Not what we are – an inventory of our qualities or social categories – but who– our character that emerges only in action. “Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure,” says Arendt.

Which brings us to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Wind, Sand and Stars. My final recommendation for your summer reading is a collection of non-fiction writing about Saint-Exupéry’s life as a pilot in the early, and terribly risky, years of aviation. He writes with a deep humanism about the freedom of flight, but also about the connection he felt with other people. Some of them crossed his path only once in a distant land, or were nothing more to him than the sparks of their firelight, glimpsed far below his wings at night. But to him, each person was an irreplaceable subject, the centre of a unique universe that would vanish at the moment of their death.

Saint-Exupéry chose a life which made the risk of death tangible every day, in the companions who took off but did not land, and were not seen again. He himself describes crash landing in the desert, defying the odds by not dying on impact, only to realise that the most likely outcome was dying of thirst before rescuers could find him. “I have no regrets, I’ve gambled and I’ve lost,” he says at the point of resignation to death. “It was all in a day’s work. But at least I have breathed the wind of the sea.”

That story ends with rescue, of course, or we wouldn’t be reading it. Years later, though, Saint-Exupéry did take flight over the Mediterranean but never landed. His story found its ending, leaving us to draw meaning from his choice to live life to the full by embracing the risk of death.

It’s a reminder that the meaning of our lives is unlikely to be found in a vain attempt to eliminate uncertainty and risk.

Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Technology is Not the Problem, is published by Harper Collins.


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