The pitfalls of risk aversion
A few years ago I was at home visiting my parents and my youngest sister, Mary, who was in high school at the time. Mary was going to hang out with her friends one night, and before she left, my parents reminded her of her 10 o’clock curfew.
After Mary shut the door, I turned to my dad and said, “Curfew?” I never had a curfew when I was growing up. Perhaps my parents had become overprotective since I moved out. Maybe they were just more worried about Mary since she’s a girl.
I asked my parents why they gave my sister a curfew and not me when I was young. It was not for the reasons I thought.
“Son, we didn’t worry about you because you never wanted to go anywhere,” my dad said.
That’s not quite how I remember it, but there’s a hint of truth there. I had plenty of friends to do stuff with after school and on the weekends. But I didn’t do a lot of the typical things that high schoolers did, like scoop-the-loop, which seemed like a waste of gas to me. Most of my friends were in band or mock trial. Some would have called us “geeks” but I prefer the term “intellectuals.”
One of the stereotypes about young people is that they think they’re invincible. When I was a teenager, that stereotype seemed pretty accurate. A lot of my classmates drove as if they had just spilled hot coffee on their lap. I was certain that my classmates would come to regret their risky behavior once they landed in either a hospital or a jail.
I used to think I was so prudent for always playing it safe. Lately, however, I’ve been reconsidering my condemnation of those risk-taking youngsters. I’ve come to realize that if you don’t take any risks at all, you miss out on a lot of fun.
This occurred to me the other day when I was at the pool in town. I was in line for the diving board, and I planned to do a garden-variety, head-first dive. Nothing too flashy. There were little kids in front about 7 years old who were doing front flips and back flips off the board. They just ran up to the edge of the board and jumped without any hesitation at all. Geesh! How am I supposed to follow that?
Doing a flip requires you to rotate 360 degrees. If you don’t do a full rotation, and only go three-quarters of the way, you will land on your back and it will hurt for the rest of the afternoon. I never would have dreamt of doing a flip of any kind at that age. I have trouble summoning the courage to do one now.
A similar thought ran through my mind as I watched women’s gymnastics during the Olympics. The routines on the balance beam always amaze me. The beam is 4 inches wide and 4 feet off the floor. I want to meet the first woman to do a flip on the beam to find out what was going through her head. How on Earth could that possibly seem like a good idea?
That’s the mystery. To risk-averse people like me, the rest of the world does a lot of mind-numbingly stupid things. And yet, if everyone were as cautious as I, there would be no platform diving, or snowboarding, or bull riding, or a lot of other dangerous activities that people enjoy. Maybe that world would be safer than this one, but it would also be much more boring. Sometimes I’m glad that not everyone is like me.