Your Preoccupation With “Risk” Is Skewed — And Subjective
And it’s ruining your perception for reward
Ask most people their thoughts on “skydivers” and they will describe them as “adrenaline junkies” at best — and “risk-takers” with a “death wish” at worst. But the reality is that, to skydivers, this isn’t the point.
As Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, a world champion skydiver, explains in his Tedx talk on this:
“Most people think that skydivers like to jump because we love the adrenaline rush, but that’s not it at all. I don’t like to be scared. Frightens the hell out of me to be scared.”
Skydivers don’t do it for the “risk,” or the “fight-or-flight” induced “adrenaline.” They do it for the joy. As Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld put it,
“We jump because we love to fly, and in freefall, there’s no sensation of falling… we have complete control and complete maneuverability. It’s the closest mankind has come to experiencing really true human flight. There’s nothing else like it.”
To this point, then, it should come as no surprise to hear that not all skydivers are who we think (i.e., 18–25, male, reckless.) That’s some, but not all.
Skydivers are also made up of accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, parents of young kids, people in longterm monogamous relationships— i.e., tons of people who are otherwise “risk averse” (as one study put it, “skydivers stand out positively in relation to other populations in terms of education, wealth, as well as mental and physical health”) yet still enjoy skydiving.
Why? Because the point is not “risk,” or some perverse relationship with “taking” it. The point is joy. And all of these people are capable of joy.
People don’t do things “for the risk”
That’s just not how humans work — even “weird” ones like skydivers.
To define skydivers as “adrenaline-junkie risk takers” is about as accurate as calling cake-bakers “sugar-junkie risk takers.” (And tbh, for how many known health problems happen as a direct and indirect result of sugar, the latter is probably even more accurate. But that’s beside the point.)
Skydiving isn’t motivated by “risk” any more than eating junk food is motivated by a direct desire to become overweight.
Yeah, some risk is taken in both cases, but to suggest that it is a defining motivation is also to entirely miss the point, and is closed-minded at best.
And the real issue here is us, and the impact this has on our own lives: if we always cloud our perspectives by running them through “risk” lenses, then it also means we’ve similarly clouded and neglected our “reward” ones…
Our preoccupation with risk destroys our ability to perceive reward
Not just for ourselves, but in the way in which we see the world .
Consider the example above: even when we recognize that there must be some amount of reward at play here, most of us still bundle it up and brand as being “risk” or “fear” related; e.g., “risk-taking” or “adrenaline-junkies” (adrenaline being the “flight-or-fight” response to a threat.)
Many of us fail to perceive the entire other side of life’s coin, which is: pure pleasure. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Pleasure in and of itself.
We are completely “joy-blind.” We’ve suffocated our own capacity for understanding and perceiving it, conjuring up no better explanation than “death wish,” having stamped out our ability to see pure reward.
We think being “aware of the risks” is the same as being “smart”
But in fact our pride in this area creates a preoccupation and a subjective lens…
If we are obsessed with seeing things through a “risk” lens — even pride ourselves on it — we are keeping ourselves from a lot of joy in life, either willfully holding ourselves back from ever experiencing it, or clouding it in judgment if we ever do.
If we see things like skydiving as “risk,” chances are good that we see most things in life — approaching a potential partner, applying and interviewing for a job, asking for a raise, taking on a big project, etc. — the same way…
Respect for risk is still important
A lot of people reading this right now are going to be a little irritated or defensive regarding their values on risk, and anxious for me to point out the importance of it. So, fine. Yes. This is me fulfilling that obligation.
Nobody is suggesting that being aware of — or respecting — risk is unimportant / stupid / etc. Everyone needs to be aware of risk — and, in fact, studies show pretty much 100% of skydivers “realize risks associated with the practice of this sport.”
And as one study found,
“Regardless the duration and number of successful parachuting attempts, respondents are respectful towards this sport discipline, which have a mobilizing influence on compliance with safety procedures.”
Understanding (and mitigating) risk, however, is not the same as making “risk” the lens through which we see everything — and it certainly doesn’t mean making risk our master in life.
“Risk” isn’t inherently “reckless”
Some people suggest — or want to believe — that “risk takers” (as they insist on defining them) either a.) just don’t feel fear (not true) or b.) have some sort of “counter-phobic” neurosis.
As Marvin Zuckerman wrote in Psychology Today,
“Some psychologists have suggested that risk-taking is linked to neuroticism… Our previous research on physical risk-taking refutes such an explanation; it suggests that risk-takers do not expressly exhibit traits of neuroticism or anxiety… Among the groups representing three levels of risk-taking, there were no significant differences on neuroticism-anxiety or activity, suggesting these traits play an insignificant role in risk-taking behavior.”
In fact, many studies support the findings that skydivers — and other “risk takers” — are in fact less, not more, neurotic than average…
Risk is a part of living life!
Here, again, there is a difference in (skewed) perspective and values, because I found many articles where people argued that risk is, like, “totally obsolete” and the need to take it is, like, “so dark ages.”
To these individuals, I must respectfully disagree. Because what the hell?
“Without risky experiences, humanity would stagnate.”
As Marvin Zuckerman wrote in Psychology Today, risk-taking is:
“A human trait that is very much responsible for our survival as a species.”
“Humans are a risk-taking species. Our ancestor Homo sapiens originated in East Africa, and within the relatively short span of 100,000 years or less spread over the entire globe. It turns out that explorativeness may be the key to the survival of the species…
Although risk-taking has negative aspects and can even prove fatal, it is a positive force as well. Without risky experiences, humanity would stagnate; there would be little impetus for discovery.”
And while many argue that modern times makes this basic human drive somehow “outdated,” the reality, as Zuckerman argues, is that,
“Modern life, with its protected cultures and curtailment of war, has not wiped out the need.”
In 2012 statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb published Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. In it, he defines “antifragile” as the opposite of fragile — things are not just “robust” enough to withstand adversity, but thrive from it. He writes:
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty… Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.
One of easiest-to-understand examples of this is the human muscular and skeletal systems, which both grow stronger with external load. Another is hormesis — strengthening a system’s immunity to a toxin by introducing small doses over time — perhaps best exemplified by “that one scene in Princess Bride.”
A third example? The human mind, and humanity overall.
On every level, we are made stronger — not weaker — by risks. And not only that, but,
“Depriving systems of vital stressors is not necessarily a good thing and can be downright harmful.”
Taking some risk for reward is incredibly important in life
Overall, people do not find “risk-taking” attractive — that’s pretty consistent. But we do appreciate rewards (especially social status and other values.)
At this point it should not surprise you (and if it does, you are still missing the point of this post) to hear that many skydivers are also CFOs, CEOs, CTOs, senior vice presidents, directors, successful entrepreneurs and business owners, millionaires, billionaires, parents, etc. — i.e., people who have done what many people think they’d want.
Nobody would (or should) look at any of these roles and say “well, he or she must just love the stress! Real stress-lover over there.” This, just like skydiving (or, I don’t know, ER surgery), is not why people do these things.
People don’t get into these positions by clinging to risk aversion, and they also don’t succeed in their endeavors simply by being “risk-takers.” They get there by focusing on the reward and taking the risk required as a by-product.
This isn’t about skydiving — it’s about life
If you come away from this post thinking “I get it — flying! great! — but I still don’t want to go skydiving,” then you’ve missed the point. If you don’t want to experience the “nothing else like it” sensation of flying, that’s fine.
But the real point here is: experience something. By seeing (and pursuing!) “reward” rather than demoting it with risk-preoccupation.