Life is a risky business. Whatever we do, whichever way we turn, we take risks. For the most part they are fairly minor risks, with relatively minor consequences if things go wrong. But, it is not at all uncommon for us to take life or death risks (using electricity, driving a car, being a passenger or even a pedestrian, for example). Risk is very much a part of everyday life. This has a number of implications, two main ones in particular.
First, it shows how skilful we tend to be at managing risks. Over the years I have run many training courses on risk assessment and management and made this point about how skilled people generally are. The usual response to this comment has been one of surprise, reflecting a degree of anxiety and a relative lack of confidence around risk issues. Such anxiety can (and often does) lead to a tendency to be overcautious about risk (being ‘risk averse’, to use the technical term), to underestimate our ability to cope with risk and thereby overestimate the chances of things going awry. For example, some parents can be overprotective towards their children, genuinely attempting to keep them safe, but causing other problems in the process, not least in relation to the children’s development and their need to learn how to keep themselves safe by managing risks. A similar problem can apply to older or disabled people.
Second, because we are so skilful at handling risk for the most part, we can sometimes be complacent about the dangers involved. Driving is a good example of this. Far too many accidents are caused by drivers forgetting that they are in charge of a machine that can kill if it is not handled carefully, being navigated among a number of other moving machines that can kill if they too are not handled carefully. A more cautious approach to motoring would no doubt save many of the lives that are lost each year in road traffic accidents.
And this is where the idea that we need a balanced approach to risk comes in. Forgetting how skilful people are at managing the risks involved in their life can make many of us overcautious and therefore unduly restrictive at times. But, by the same token, the fact that we are so skilled can also make us complacent about risk and lead to a lack of caution in situations that require a more careful approach if we are to stay safe (and keep others safe). There are, then, two problematic extremes to avoid, one where we are overestimating the risks involved and another where we are underestimating them. The aim, clearly, must be to develop a balanced approach to risk, one in which we are not allowing anxiety to push us into an overreaction, but nor are we allowing complacency to bind us to significant dangers.
For many people it may take quite some time to develop such a balanced approach, but the efforts involved should be well repaid. There are many dangers around us that we need to be aware of (and responsive to) if we are to avoid the harm that such dangers can bring about. But there are also significant problems we can encounter if we go beyond awareness and responsiveness and enter the territory of being ‘risk averse’ – that is, of losing sight of that much-needed balance by allowing ourselves to be overcautious. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to the other people in our lives (personal and professional) to make sure that we achieve the right balance when it comes to risk.