The role of risk in our lives

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 22, 2005, 1:30 AM | comments: 0

There's a thread on the private Burst Media forums about growing your Web site business. This discussion inevitably led to a discussion about taking risks in your business. This got me to thinking about risk in the broader sense.

In business, risk is generally defined as the chances you take in conducting some kind of enterprise. There is generally some kind of investment involved in any business, and there's a chance that you may lose it. You can mitigate the risks in business a number of ways, the first and most obvious of which is not going into a business that you feel has a high probability of failing. You can't always control the environment in which you conduct business, but you can certainly choose not to conduct that business at all.

Stephanie got me to thinking about risk in terms of your health. Those risks are a little more tricky. We can certainly mitigate health risks by choosing not to step in front of a speeding car, not jumping out of airplanes, eating right, exercising and generally using some common sense with regards to how we treat our bodies. Unfortunately, we can't always manage or control the environment we live in, or the genetic code we're given. We can't stop an idiot on the freeway from killing us or choose not to have a cancer gene.

So where does that put risk in our lives? Like many things, we want to control risk as much as we can. We need to find a balance in life between taking acceptable risks and letting go of the things we just can't control. Sometimes that's easier said than done.

I knew a guy at a previous job that was a brilliant manager. To this day he's still very much a success in the publishing field. I remember at one point that one of his children became very ill with some disease (I forget which one). Here's a guy that's used to eventually getting what he wants by way of managing risk, but was totally helpless in this respect. All of the success in the world couldn't cure his child, and it clearly affected him emotionally.

So what do you do about that? In my case, I've spent many times on long solo drives or sleepless nights considering all possibilities. That's how eventually I arrived at the idea of working for myself. I know that for the foreseeable future, I'll probably spend more than I make. That's a risk, but I know that I can go back to a day job at any time. In fact, having written a book in my self-employment makes that even easier.

Then there are health issues. Living with a vegetarian and future dietitian certainly gives you a certain perspective. In the last year or so, I've lost a little weight, mostly eliminated fast food, eat a lot more organic food, and eat a lot more fiber than I used to. None of these are earth-shattering behavioral changes, but they're a step in the right direction. It's slow going after nearly 30 years of doing a lot of things wrong, but I go at the pace that my mental issues will allow me to.

What I can't do is go the route that my friend did. He lived in fear of risk. He wanted to manage everything, and when he encountered something he couldn't, it made him miserable. Being in constant fear of the risks the world throws at you is no way to live. By all means, mitigate the risks, but don't fear them or try to manage them all. I fully accept that I may never be able to make it as an entrepreneur. I also accept that a part of life is death, and that I could die in a car accident or get sick by eating something. But I can't fear those risks to the extent that I stop driving around or stop eating.

Probably the most extreme example of this was a woman that worked as a secretary in my office a few years ago. You should have seen the stack of shit she carried around. You know those wire baskets with the wheels that old ladies use to take groceries home? That's what she brought to work every single day. She was prepared for virtually anything that could happen to her (I think she even carried a gun, but I never saw it). In addition to various toiletries, a change of clothes, and God knows what else, she also had products for everything. I'm not talking about a bottle of Tylenol, but a full medicine cabinet. Diarrhea, dry skin, 'rhoids, colds, jock itch... shit, she has something for everything. How does someone live like that? How can you not just chalk up some of life's problems to "shit happens?"

So as I go to sleep tonight, I can accept that any number of things could happen to me while I sleep. I've mitigated the risks by locking the front door, turning the heat up, tested the smoke alarms and made sure the stove was off. That's about all I can do. Tomorrow I'll try to work a little on mitigating other risks, but I won't spend a lot of time worrying about the risks to the extent I can't live life. It's just too short.


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