Optimizing Risk

People…don’t seek to minimize risk. They seek to optimize it.  —Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

I n his book, 12 Rules for Life, Dr. Jordan Peterson puts forth 12 precepts for living that he describes as “An Antidote to Chaos.” The book is profoundly compelling (you can read my brief review of it here) and I highly recommend it as a fascinating journey through psychology, history, philosophy, and religion to an approach for managing the chaos in our lives and living better. Rule 11 in his book is entitled: “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding.” As I read this chapter, I was struck by his statement quoted above – that we don’t seek to minimize risk, we seek to optimize it.

Managing Risk

Risk management has become big business in our world today. In our companies, we have risk management departments. Disciplines with names like legal, HR, and compliance dot the landscape as organizations seek to minimize their exposure to risk. Massive companies providing insurance products and services generate billions of dollars in premiums from companies and consumers trying to protect themselves against loss. Predicting risk has even developed its own discipline: actuarial science. What risks are we trying to manage? Every one we can think of: government, people, nature, health, markets, accidents, and so on. If you feel a bit of a knot forming in your gut as you read this, then you clearly have a sense for the scope of our world of risk.

So what is Peterson talking about when he says that “we don’t seek to minimize risk?” Everything about our lives seems to be geared toward minimizing risk. In this chapter, Jordan uses the example of kids on skateboards or playing in a park. When adults see children exhibiting risky behavior, risk management kicks-in and we seek to eliminate the risk by banning the skateboards, putting up obstacles to skating in certain places, or, in the case of a playground, removing all possible devices on which a child might get hurt. In short, the adults work to take the fun out of the behavior.

Where’s the Fun?

In situations where the fun, or risk, has been removed, children stop playing on said equipment or gravitate to other places in which they might entertain themselves. When the risk is removed, the activity is no longer fun. Why? Because it is at the edge where we grow. Skateboarders get better by continually testing the limits of their skills through gravity defying “tricks.” Children build strength, coordination, and confidence on equipment that provides the consequences of failure – the risk of being hurt. The fun comes when they conquer the challenge, improve their skills, and build their confidence.

As adults, we often forget this aspect of growing up because we get caught up in the risk management elements of our existence. It is so prevalent that we no longer think it’s odd that specific jobs exist to solely focus on dealing with employment law, OSHA rules, managing the administrative details of simply having employees – not necessarily to develop them, but to remain “compliant.” We devote entire segments of our operations to dealing with risk rather than serving a customer or solving a problem in the market. A hundred years ago, this state of affairs would have seemed unimaginable.

Growing at the Edge

What has not changed is the fact that, as adults, we too grow at the edge – even if we’ve become a bit more reticent to step up to it. Personal growth is a key driver of job satisfaction and general happiness. When we’re not growing, we’re static – a state akin to stagnation. People, and organizations, that stagnate ultimately begin to fall behind. The reality is that we’ve been convinced that life is about risk management – risk avoidance – when in fact happiness rests at the edge where we are optimizing risk. A place where we are pushing ourselves enough to grow without falling painfully into the failure on the other side.

How do we optimize risk? It starts with knowing yourself. Most of us probably aren’t wired for skateboard tricks and that skill is not likely one that is worth the risk or investment of time at this point in our lives. But the example is a good one. Where do your edges lie? Optimizing risk doesn’t have to mean we expose ourselves to bodily harm. It means we are seeking growth at the edge of our comfort zone. When we push that edge, our comfort zone expands. The answer: start small. Take small steps to gradually expand your comfort zone. Continually seek the edges: of knowledge, of physical exertion, of discipline, of tasks, of interests. Look at the “cow paths” of your life and consider how you shake them up a bit. Then, take that first, small, step.

No Guarantees

The truth is that we are made to optimize risk. As we age, it is easy to forget. Safety seems far more appealing. Unfortunately, safety is often a mirage. We find comfort, familiarity, stability, and we label it as “safe.” Our world promises nothing – except that things will change. The feeling of safety is a cloud castle that is swept away by the winds of change. Improved safety comes by continuing to grow because it improves our odds of evolving to meet the challenges of change. Find your own skateboard and keep learning new tricks. Optimize risk to grow into the best version of yourself – at every stage of life.


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