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Heisenberg, Quaratines, and the Benefits of Risks

September 1, 2014

The term "risk behavior" is 9 out of 10 times associated with a negative connotation. In adolescent education, for example, smoking, drinking, underage sex, and drug abuse are all classified as "risk behaviors", or actions that may lead to negative consequences. In other words, by associating the work "risk" with what they, the educators, state to be a completely negative choice, they in turn lead people to associate risks with negative consequences. And to be fair, that's not a completely incorrect association; something that has a risk has the potential to be very bad. But by definition, risk is a combination of the potential for both negative and positive results, and it's the positive side of taking risks that I'd like to talk about, and more specifically, the fear often associated with taking risks.

The reason many people are afraid to take risks is largely because of the fear of the unknown, and this makes sense. Acting in such a way that may lead to unnecessary uncertainties are not very desirable. Our tendency to stay to the tried-and-true ways is manifest in status quo bias, in which people tend to favor the status quo, or the way things are now, over any changes that can logically bring improvements. Making big shifts in the way we act or think, even if it may bring positive improvements, is still a risky course of action in that there's quite a bit left to chance, and this uncertainty in turn leads us to stay clear from taking too many risks. For a more relevant example, it has been found that very few people take risks in their academic career (and instead stay clearly within the well-worn paths of K-12 public education, then college, then graduate school, then career) because of the uncertainty associated with alternative education paths. And this uncertainty is one with particularly large implications, so perhaps staying clear out of taking risks in academics is perhaps understandable.

But at the same time, I believe it's equally worth carefully examining the positive implications of many of these risks. Is it not true that only in taking risks with a great chance of failure can we also find great success? Or is safe, iterative improvements over a long period of time good enough? And at the heart of the matter is the question, "Should we take risks in spite of the chance of failure in order to succeed?"

I find in particularly interesting to look at risk-taking by examining how people respond to fear, because fear is the root of why people abstain from these decision that cause uncertainty. Fear comes from our heavy dependence on the patterns of the world to predict future events and make rational decisions based on those predictions. Humans are innately pattern-recognition machines, and we are very, very good at finding patterns, often even when there aren't any patterns to begin with. And I talk about patterns here not only in the mathematical sense of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on*, but also in the predictive sense, in that if every time you fall on your face, it feels painful, it'll probably hurt just as badly the next time you fall on your face. And clearly, we rely daily on these patterns to carry out simple actions, because 1) they're mostly correct, and 2) if we tried to consider every single footstep on the way to work or school, we would literally never get there within the week. But not everything in the world is carried out according to these patterns, and therein lies the cause of our fear, specifically the fear of uncertainty. When we expect a pattern to continue, but the reality deviates from that expectation or prediction, this creates an uncertainty, and normally, our natural response is to be afraid or upset. My point is, we abstain from many risky decisions because they cause a particular degree of uncertainty and unpredictability for the future, and we humans are naturally against the feeling of not knowing things.

But are uncertainties always unfavorable? I believe that, on the contrary, uncertainties are what makes life more pleasant. Honestly, I would hate to be in a situation where I could accurately predict how things would happen next. Granted, that would be safe and secure, but it would also lack the things that make life interesting, like living in quarantine: safe but boring. So it turns out most of us live within a perpetually precarious balance between complete security and complete uncertainty, between knowing that we are in safety and being overtaken by fear of the unknown. Most of our actions and decisions rest on our perceived patterns that may or may not exist and are equally likely to break at anytime as they are likely to continue. So I find that in this kind of a universe, it doesn't make much sense to always take the most secure road. I think there is a certain value in taking risks**, because regardless of if it leads to the success that the risk warrants or not, there's an inherent excitement and fun in not knowing everything about a situation, not grasping for complete control, because whether or not we believe in a predetermined future, our illusion that we have control over a situation is mostly just that: an illusion masking a mostly fragile truth of having almost no control. And in such an unpredictable world, I would rather know that I enjoyed it, than be constantly questioning the outcome of my actions.

In a way, starting this blog was a risk for me as well. There was a chance that I would lose interest or wouldn't be able to find the time in doing other things for school and music to keep writing, and there was certainly a possibility that others just wouldn't really care what I wanted to say on certain topics and the idea would ultimately fail. But I started writing in spite of those risks, because it's just exciting to put stuff out into the world. And I am rather content with how it is growing: we recently crossed the 600 page views milestone, so here's a thanks to all the readers, especially those who come back to read each week. There's a lot of unknowns in life, but I do know I enjoy writing here. All in all, I think this one was a risk worth taking.

Do you live a planned-out life of the perpetually ready, or are you a thrill-seeker?


*This is the Fibonacci sequence, in case you didn't recognize it

**Still, don't smoke. That's not making life interesting, that's just being dumb.