The Differences Between Risk And Consequence

One of my parkour friends posted a video today of him doing a big jump over the water at the Seattle Waterfront. Someone commented on the video, asking ““why he would do this,”” ““what he was thinking,”” ““what is the payoff in taking risks like that?”” and that this was ““stupid for someone with so much going for them.”These are things any traceur (someone who trains parkour) has heard before, and typically knows how to respond to. But there was something else in this woman’s rant that echoed something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

She was talking about risk, but she doesn’t quite understand what ““risk”” really is.

I want to highlight the difference between ““risk”” and ““consequences.”” People often think of the terms as interchangeable, but they’re two very different things. And once the distinction is clear, it will help you understand why [my friend] did what he did.

Risk is, essentially, the chances of a thing happening. Saying something ““is risky”” means the chances of failure are high. In this case, the ““risk”” is the chance of falling.

Consequences are what happens as a result. In this example, bouncing off the wall and falling into the water.

Separating Risk from Consequence enables us to do several things:

1) Understand professional ““extreme”” athletes. The risk of [my friend] falling is actually very low. He has trained for years, he is hyper-aware of his abilities and limits, is very strong, has jumped farther distances before, and is responsible enough to know when to say ““not today.””

2) Evaluate the pay-off of taking a risk. The consequences of [my friend] falling is actually not that severe either. Assuming he protects his head (which is a pretty safe assumption, given the positioning of his hands and feet), he would fall into the water. Even an uncontrolled fall of that distance into water is not particularly threatening. He is a strong swimmer, which means he could get to the surface, breathe, and tread water until he and his friends figure out how to get him out of the water.

So this, in reality, is a low-risk, moderate-consequence situation. Breaking it down like this helps us understand the difference between this situation and a high-risk, high-consequence situation (for example, an untrained person doing a deep sea scuba dive into a shipwreck).

Hopefully, this helps further clarify Brian and his motivations.

This same rationale applies to startups, business, and life, too. Some people (employees at big companies and mothers, for example) think working for a startup is ““risky.”” That’s true! The chances of any given startup failing are pretty huge.

But what are the consequences of a startup failing? You learn a ton. Your responsibilities jump years ahead of where they’d be if you were working for a large company for the same amount of time. You get used to doing more with less.

You actually end up being more hirable.

So next time you look at something and sense potential danger, take a moment and think.

Are you worried about the risk? Or the consequences?

The picture is another from my backflip collection. I was in Washington DC visiting a friend. We were sitting on a bench on the National Mall, I glanced left, and my jaw dropped. The Washington Monument and the clouds were lit beautifully. So my friend took this picture, which is definitely one of my favorites.

Written on January 2, 2013