Finding Balance in Assessing Risk

Last weekend, I went to Tryon International Equestrian Center to watch horses jump on the cross-country course. If you haven’t seen this event (which, ironically, is one of 3 disciplines in a sport called “Eventing”), it’s absolutely incredible that a horse and rider can get over these huge jumps together. On one of the jumps, we saw a horse tumble over the obstacle. It looked like he landed on the rider, who we were certain was badly injured. However, in a few minutes, she was walking off the course with her horse. She could do that because she was wearing a safety vest that inflated when she fell.

There was a part of me that wondered why anyone would take such chances. After all, it was a similar accident that paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve. When it became clear that you can get really hurt jumping horses, shouldn’t everyone have seen the folly and quit doing it all together? Why take the risk?

Watching the rider walk off the course with her horse got me thinking about assessing risk and taking risk. The truth is, we are all doing both every day. Driving in your car carries risk. Walking up and down the stairs at your house carries risk. Flying an airplane carries risk. Taking the dog for a walk carries risk.

Sometimes we assess risk well. Sometimes we assess risk poorly and either pay for it or avoid doing something that we would have really enjoyed.

We also take risk, often without assessing it. For example, I didn’t wear a seat beat in my early years. None of us did.

Lately, I’ve had to think differently about the risk of taking my dog for a walk on our street. There was a time where my biggest worry would be a car passing on the narrow road, or me tripping over her. Not so these days. In the last few years, we’ve begun seeing more bears, and at all times of the day. About a month ago, I saw a young one at the construction site two doors down, casually checking out the workmen’s trucks, hoping to make their lunch his lunch.

I would rather not have this problem to worry about. It’s tempting to play the odds and ignore the risk. It’s equally tempting to let the fear of facing down a bear imprison me in my house.

Somewhere between those two extremes I can find a balance. I like to assess risk using two factors: probability and magnitude. In other words, how likely is it that I will see a bear on one of our walks, and if I do see one, how bad can it get?

There isn’t a right answer for everyone; it’s about the risk I’m willing to take. I love to walk my dog, so staying home just doesn’t work for me. After visiting Jackson Hole, Wyoming this summer, I recognized the difference between worrying about encountering a grizzly there and a black bear here. The locals recognize that they could see a grizzly at any moment, and grizzlies are much more aggressive. The locals we met carry bear spray at ready access anytime they are in a place where they could encounter a bear.

So far, my answer has been to get noisy. I figure if the bear can hear me coming, he will skedaddle before we come face to face. You should hear the conversations we have walking down the street. Piper listens while I prattle on and on, making sure we don’t sneak up on bears, people, or anything else. Ironically, the biggest threat we’ve faced on our “talky walkies” is other dogs. One evening, two large dogs ran across full speed the highway towards us. They got to see “mama bear Lynn”, and we were able to walk away without a scratch.

When I started flying airplanes, I had to really think about the risk. Because I was paying attention, it seemed like I read about a small plane crash every other day. The fearful part of me assessed the risk as way too much. However, clearly, people fly small airplanes safely every day. The more I learned, the more I came to realize the veracity of the saying “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Flying is safe because every move is designed to mitigate risk. We walk around to check the airplane before every flight – even when the plane had just landed safely a few moments before. We follow checklists to make sure we don’t forget a simple step we’ve done a thousand times. We practice emergencies so that we have muscle memory should the real thing occur. We check the weather, fuel, traffic and more. We hone our senses to notice the slightest thing that feels off, and then we address it. All so that we can experience the joy of flying.

Even with all that accidents still can occur. It’s the nature of life and the nature of risk.

However, the question is not whether or not anyone should fly. The question is: am I willing to build the skills, discipline, and mental tools to do it safely? Am I accurately assessing risk so that I can properly mitigate it?

I believe that we are made for struggle. Life is not supposed to be easy. Our ancestors didn’t have the push button lives that we do. Figuring out food, water and shelter was a daily task. We come from strong stock, and I believe we need to take risk to feel alive.

From this vantage point, I can see why people take the risk to run the cross-country course. They are building the skills, discipline, and mental tools to do it safely. In case of accident, they have their safety vest. And they get to experience the joy of communion with their horse as the gallop across the field.

How do you see risk? Where are you taking risk that you haven’t considered? Where are you assessing risk as too high? What can you do to mitigate risk so that you can find more joy in life?