Most people start to go wrong with risk from the very beginning. When asked what they’re afraid of, they will respond with an activity, situation or thing. The problem with this is that their response doesn’t describe a bad thing happening – for example, skydiving is just an activity. Not good or bad, just what it is. On the other hand, having a faulty parachute that doesn’t open and hitting the ground at full speed is a bad thing that could happen as a result of skydiving.
If we consider these two examples, we can start to understand why risk can be a frightening concept to many.
For the person who says they are afraid of skydiving, they either go no further in their exploration, maintaining a vague and undefined cloud of things that could go wrong in their mind, or they attach to a few extreme examples they have heard of of things going wrong. To be fair, I would be afraid of it too if that were my frame of reference!
For the person who says they are afraid of the parachute not opening and them hitting the ground at full speed, now we have something to work with. We can research how often parachutes fail in that way, and learn about the causes of those incidents. We can apply that knowledge to minimize the chances of our parachute failing in that way – for example by choosing equipment providers with outstanding safety records. We can even put other measures in place as a backup plan in case the parachute does fail, such as having an emergency parachute. When we have done everything in our power to minimize the risk of that event happening, we can reassess how likely it is to happen, and make a decision about whether we are comfortable with those odds.
As you can see, the big difference here is being specific. If we start by being very specific about the outcome we’re afraid of (in this example, hitting the ground at full speed), we can examine the different ways it can happen (in this example, the parachute failing), put measures in place to protect against it, and make a judgment on how likely it is to happen, and whether that meets our needs around level of risk.
From now on, every time you think about risk, try thinking about the risk associated with a specific scenario. Not with an activity, situation or thing, but with one specific scenario. You see, every activity, situation and thing has a number of possible scenarios associated with it – some good, some bad. For the bad scenarios, we want to understand their level of risk so that we can do something about it and make informed choices.
Next time you are worrying about something, ask yourself what the specific scenario you are worried about is. The more you can practice getting clear on this, the better prepared you will be when it comes to evaluating risk!