Book of Good Living: The Risk Rule

Book of Good Living: The Risk Rule October 12, 2014

BGL copyMy approach to risk is tuned toward the more sensitive end of the spectrum. (We’re not counting the bull riding, which was a 20-something macho-guy one-off.)

As I said in my last post, I’ve gotten to the age of 62 without a stitch, a broken bone, or a major accident of any sort. I’ve done it by following a rough rule for dealing with risks.

So here’s my Risk Rule. (Note that this applies mainly to physical dangers, and not to existential hazards such as being turned down when asking someone out on a date.)

There’s the CHANCE of a thing happening. And there’s the COST if it does happen. The two factors are separate, but they work together to determine the probability of injurious end result. It’s not Chance vs. Cost, it’s Chance TIMES Cost.

There are five general risk scenarios:

1) Zero-zero.

The probability of the thing happening is zero, and the effect if will have if it does is zero. You don’t need to think about it. You’re not going to be attacked in your bathroom by butterflies. And even if you are attacked, by some extremely remote chance, it’s butterflies. Eh.

2) Zero-Something.

The probability of the thing happening is zero, but the effect if it does happen is significant. You still don’t need to think about it.  You’re not going to be attacked in your bathroom by a sitatunga. Even through such an attack might leave you injured … it’s just not going to happen. Eh.

3) Something-Zero.

The probability of the thing happening is significant, but the effect if it does happen is zero. You don’t need to think about it. A complete stranger is going to someday look at you and think “What a complete asshole.” You will probably never even know it when it happens. But afterward, the two of you will go your separate ways and never see each other again. Eh.

4) Something-Something.

The probability of the thing happening is non-zero, and the effect if it does happen is non-zero.  You’re going to cross the street in traffic and there’s going to be a driver who fails to notice you. He may strike and injure you. Whoa. You definitely need to pay attention, and work to limit the negative outcomes.

And a special case …

5) Something-Infinity

That rock ledge you’re standing on PROBABLY isn’t going to break. Hey, it’s been just that way for tens of thousands of years. But rock ledges DO break, and if this one does, you’re definitely, absolutely, without any doubt, going to fall and die. Double-whoa. You need to not do that thing.

If there’s an ALMOST ZERO chance of the thing happening, but if it DOES happen it will cost you the entire rest of your life, you treat it as if it was an extremely dangerous situation.

Unless and until you think about it, decide the risk is worth it to you personally — that there is some large potential payoff — and deliberately accept that things could go bad.

The point of the Risk Rule isn’t for you to hide yourself away from life and never again ride motorcycles or swim in the ocean, or ski down black diamond runs. The point is 1) to approach each Scenario 5 situation with your eyes open and knowing you’ve made a conscious, adult decision to proceed, and 2) to limit the number of these types of risks you take.

In these cases, Chance X Cost equals some very high level of probability. Over the course of a lifetime, repeatedly taking these kinds of risks increases the potential for a fatal accident. Sooner or later, you will suffer for it. As the saying goes, “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”

In fact, the same is true of Scenario 4, especially if you’re doing something – smoking, drinking, using drugs – which is non-fatal in the short term but has a cumulative effect toward certain negative health effects. Sooner or later, you’ll suffer some consequence, which may very well include misery and death.


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