On Belay: Some Thoughts on Risk-Taking

I’ve been thinking about risk-taking a lot lately.  I’m not much of a risk-taker, it turns out, despite the fact that I am the youngest child in my family and according to some infographic I saw on Facebook (second only to Wikipedia for credible information), the last born child is a risk-taker just naturally.  But I had been thinking about this even before that contradictory chart appeared on my newsfeed the other day.

Risk-taking — taking a chance, a gamble — means working without a net.  Rock-climbing without a belay.  It means the mutual fund is made up more with your Aggressive Growth Portfolio instead of Money Market.

It seems there is this continuum of risk from low-level to high.  At the low-end, there is a certain confidence that “I won’t fail” which moves to “If I fail, I’ll be protected” (the belay rope will stop the fall) and then moves to high-level risk which is that “failure is not an option,” I’m operating with no protection or “If you don’t die, what’s the failure?”

But if you can’t fail or there is protection if you do, what sort of risk is that.  It’s rock climbing by walking on an undulating forest-service road.  It’s tight-rope walking on sidewalk cracks.  Low-risk is low-pay off.  Low-risk is low consequences.  Not much of an adrenaline rush if you’re tightroping the curb.

When I was younger, in my twenties and thirties and before parenthood, those seem to be the days for risk-taking.  Leave it all and backpack through Europe.  Move to the mountains and backpack, cross-country ski, write, go with the flow.  Work to live not live to work. The yearning was there but I couldn’t step out on that tightrope.  I couldn’t make that first move on the rock face.  It felt too freestyle.  You have to have two things to freestyle:  nerve and skills.  You need guts and at least the self-perception of enough skill to survive.  It takes some brashness.  It takes tip-toeing up on the side of rash, cavalier.  You can’t hesitate.  You can’t question.  “Do I dare to wear my pants rolled?”

Adulthood, parenthood, responsibilities and bills to be paid seem to sandpaper off the urge (or is it the opportunity) for risk-taking.  You can’t take unwilling — or even unknowing — hostages with you on that tightrope.  You can’t let them piggy back as you scale that rock face.  Can you?

So I look around at my comfortable home, my loved ones who share it, and the respectable professional life I have pursued.  It’s a nice life.  Fulfilling.  Pretty safe.  It won’t win any gold medal at the X-Games.  No Extreme sport, this life.

But just once I’d like to climb without a belay.

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