Updated: Apr 20, 2020

It lives around us, within us, and yet rarely do we conceptualize its benefits and detriments to our daily lives. Only when faced with obvious context does our subconscious murmur the word risk. It intertwines a narrative of every experience we have on earth. There are times when we have a strict and calculated analysis. Generally, these are hard decisions, or crises. Then there are times when we are moving about life without pause and let our intuitive mind handle those decisions. Typically, these are the less complex decisions. The fact of the matter is, we are constantly assessing and calculating risk and outcome. We assess if our meats are cooked to FDA suggested temperatures, if our car tires are filled with enough air to drive safely, if we want to go to a social gathering even if we don’t know anyone attending.

What is it that makes this COVID-19 situation so unique in its nature? The majority of us are heeding advice from a governmental chain of messaging. At the same time that the bickering between aisles continues, we are seeing bipartisanship at unprecedented levels during a time when political riffs typically grow fierce with upcoming elections. We are setting aside “this normal life” and constantly tuning into risk assessment from our leaders, and thus trying to calculate how this virus will affect us. Others are creating their own perceptions of what is and is not risky behavior. The thesis of this current chapter in our collective lives is this; for the first time in many decades we are analyzing risk and responding as one collective. We are bonded, for better or worse, by a life event that is invoking fear and worry within our minds.

I would argue there are very few people who have not thought about implications of the global virus that threaten the lives of our loved ones with compromised immune systems. It is with this sentiment that we are seeing growing frustration and anger towards the outliers of risk calculation. The folks that still believe COVID-19 to be a conspiracy theory, or that the implications are not as severe as world leaders are suggesting. People are participating in “risky” behavior while justifying it with the fact that we need to be social distancing.

There is no simple equation that can eliminate risk. It is not as easy as stating that going right versus going left at an intersection will yield a more positive result. Especially if you do not have a map of your intended travels. We call this portion of risk management uncertainty. Within risk calculation, uncertainty is the proverbial black sheep. Rarely do we have definitive answers for an outcome, thus we create room for erroneous judgment. Sometimes, we have the good fortune of being able to stop and assess these factors. You may look ahead and see that the fork trending left has potholes and looks rather untraveled. Whereas taking the intersection to the right is freshly paved with a speed limit within our comfort zone. So, what is the underlying factor that helps us determine which turn to make?

We rely heavily on our comfort zone. Which is to say our risk tolerance. Or what is an acceptable amount of risk we are willing to assume. Our risk tolerance is based upon life experience, and within that experience is our perceived experience. Everyone views risk from a slightly different platform based upon life events, skill sets, emotional boundaries, physical capabilities, health concerns and a long list of other human shaping moments. Some of us are more tolerant to certain risks than others may be. For instance, I may perceive climbing the Grand Teton as a scary and risky endeavor. But the actual risk is quite low if I have the skillset, tools, and experience to manage the hazards associated with the task. For instance, falling is actually not risky if I have set a good belay, assessed the route correctly, and I have a rope on. But mentally, I may be gripped! I may be looking down the north face of the Grand Teton with immense exposure and my mind might perceive a fall to be catastrophic.

Thus this idea of risk management stems from an incredible amount of bias. We refer to these components as “perceived” verse “actual” risk. In part, this portion of the assessment is what we are tolerant of, or what we deem appropriate. Biases come from our lived experiences leading to a particular decision. Perceived risk generally stem from uncertain conditions. The assessor doesn’t necessarily have the skills or experience to determine realistic consequences associated with such a risk. Whereas, assessing actual risk is calculated from a large degree of experience.

My relationship to risk is rather complex. As a mountain guide, I deal with risk calculations daily. My work lends itself to a proprietary blend of risk management, client care, and technical skill. The balance of risk and reward is certainly an art. It can only be maintained with a very intimate connection between a human and an outside influence. Generally, we view the “bad” outside influences as hazards, and the “good” outside influences as rewarding experiences. Within the industry we are actually graded for certifications upon our performance based upon how well we can maintain a homeostatic response during stressful situations. It is this comprehensive understanding of risk that has my head wrapped around various social media posts, conversations, and themes throughout the formative stages of this outbreak.

I urge us all to reflect on our social responsibilities as we continue to stumble down this path of uncertainty. Don’t bias your judgments with fear and misapplied concepts. Seek to find a balance. Get outside, in whatever way you deem responsible. Stay inside if that is the end goal of your calculation. But just remember, managing risk is inherently an art form.

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