Risks, Consequences and the Graph of Life

Illustration by Kaly Johnson

Illustration by Kaly Johnson

Viewpoints from the Backside of Middle Age

Age brings wisdom one hopes. I recently turned 49, somehow had a 17th wedding anniversary, and my daughter turned four. I sidestepped many responsibilities of adulthood until I hit my 40’s, and haven’t had a “real” job since the 90’s. I have been fortunate to earn a living based on action and adventure based sports, but it’s not all fist pumps and high fives. I financially support my family in large part through adventure journalism; I go ride dirt bikes, rock climb, alpine climb and enjoy other “risky” outdoor sports and write about my experiences or review gear used in such endeavors. Yup, they pay me to do this, but as they say, “freedom isn’t free,” and the income stream can suddenly end with any close encounter with the earth’s surface. Maybe it’s time for some maturing.

The reality is serious injury will diminish my earnings exponentially. Many are in the same position, but statistically, I am exposing myself to more risk than the average worker, then adding to that by doing the same activities when I am not at “work.” Twice in the past three months, injuries suffered while “on the job” forced introspection on the way I work and play.

This blog is an attempt to dissect the quagmire of risk vs. responsibility,  delve into it logically and emotionally, partly for selfish therapeutic reasons, but also knowing that others are swimming in the same pond. Maybe we can help each other stay afloat.

Risk vs. Consequence

Alex Honnold, the famous rock climbing free soloist (El Cap without a rope!) speaks eloquently about how he distinguishes risk and consequence. In his words, the risk is the probability that something bad may happen and the consequence is the result of that horrible thing happening. He can remain calm while executing his death-defying climbs because he is capable of keeping risk and consequence separate and in perspective: the risk of him falling off a climb that is well below the limits of his ability is low, but the consequence is high (death). He has faith in his ability to climb the relatively easy route and understands as we do while driving 70 mph in traffic, that the risk that something going awry is low. He is keenly aware that the consequence of error is extremely grim, but keeps the perspective clear -  the odds of him failing are low, so he continues, much as we do in the fast lane of the freeway.

How are we able to drive at speeds that could potentially kill us, and not worry? Because driving on the highway at that speed is well within our capabilities, so low on the ability scale that we can sing along to a song or carry on a conversation. We are aware of the potential consequence but can keep the perspective clear, banking on the relatively low risk of driving. Many people have expressed that what Honnold does is extremely risky and irresponsible, but the risks and consequences compared to highway driving can be viewed as being similar. Are we all guilty of “risky” and “irresponsible” behavior when barrelling down the fast lane at 70+ mph, sharing jokes with the passengers? Remember that Honnold is climbing a route that is the same relative skill level as driving on a freeway is to the rest of us.

It is difficult for many to keep risk separated from consequence when the latter is so visible and stark. The focus on the obvious consequences is why people may be scared of heights; the odds of the high rise rooftop balcony collapsing are minuscule to zero, but fear paralyzes some. Maybe some transfer this inability to avoid consequence fixation into their judgments of other’s behaviors; maybe we even do that to ourselves.

If the odds of something going wrong, based on ability level (Honnold soloing routes well below his limits) or circumstance (the rooftop balcony collapsing) are low, then the risk is low, regardless of consequence, even if the consequence is a gruesome death. It’s these highly visible consequences that can attract action sports aficionados, but any “daredevil” moniker is unfitting if the actual risk is low. Low risk is low risk, no matter the consequence.

The Gradual Decline vs. “Falling Off the Cliff”

Illustration by Kaly Johnson

Illustration by Kaly Johnson

While climbing, a partner postulated that I was making bad choices at this juncture in my life by continuing my line of work and ways of recreating. Later, the same climber engulfed a plate of fried everything and washed it down with multiple alcoholic drinks. Fun times for sure, but it made me think; certain long-term lifestyle behaviors, like diet, are well proven to cause increased mortality. Smokers pay higher life insurance rates based on similar knowledge, and it’s difficult to argue the logic. People who engage in smoking, bad diets, inadequate sleep, high stress and other negative lifestyle habits are knowingly and willingly accepting the higher risk of some pretty ugly consequences. Heart disease, cancers, and a host of other maladies gradually, over an extended period, lead to an untimely death.

Then there are the “adrenaline junkies” like Honnold, base jumpers, maybe throw in a dirt biking and climbing adventure journalist. High consequences crush those that fall victim to whatever level of risk they are accepting, and it’s sudden. Everything is really fun until it's not fun. No gradual decline, no middle ground, just BAM, suddenly you “fall off the cliff.”

Imagine a line graph. The line is life, the area under the curve is how much living is in that life. For those engaging in bad lifestyle habits but not partaking in “risky” adventures, the line gradually declines until death, producing a gradually downward sloping line. Now imagine the same graph for the healthy adrenaline junkie: the line travels horizontally along the graph until it instantly drops, producing a rectangle. The “safe” gradual decline vs. the “unsafe” instant drop, but both lines end in the same place. Maybe the first line is longer, but is that what matters? The squared-off line has more area under the curve at any point along the horizontal axis as long as the line isn’t at zero. Do you want the long line or do you want more area under the curve?

Thoughts like these rambled in my mind frequently over the last few months. Although I summited, two months ago I took extreme risks climbing the North Ridge of Mount Baker with an injured ankle. Then just last week, I crashed while dirt biking in Baja Mexico, injuring the opposite ankle and heel. I had thoughts of my income suddenly disappearing and envisioned the look on my daughter's face as I told her we couldn’t get Christmas gifts. I got lucky both times as the injuries aren’t long-term; the outcomes could have been so much worse.

Things like this have happened plenty of times, and I have contemplated taking a corporate desk job for the sake of separating voluntary risk from financially supporting my family. I rationalize, making sure I am separating the actual risks from the consequences and ultimately decide that I can assume those risks and many of them are at least partially in my control. Then I think of the graph, do I want the longer line or more area under the curve? And I always vote for the latter. I’m taking the area under the curve, the life in the years and not the years in the life. What’s your call?