Saturday, November 4, 2017

Risk and Failure

I've been thinking about risks lately and failure. What is the risk to test X in Y environment? What is the risk of taking job A? What is the risk of climbing mountain B? What is the risk of not climbing mountain B?

It is interesting how my perspective on risk has changed as I have grown older. For starters, I'm more aware of the risks, across the board. On a mountain I now realize the many ways I could fall that I might not have appreciated before. At a race I realize the worst that could happen is roughly what happened to me at the 2015 24 hour world championships. I can't imagine it being any worse than that, at least in a road race or track race. So why not swing for the fences? Worst that happens I flop and spent the last six months "wasting" my training cycle. Yet, the truth is, by staying in shape, I'm not wasting a training cycle, even if I "waste" the race. It's more experience and I can come back and try again.

Similarly, 2010 was a pretty rough year for me, and after it was over I sought the safety and security of a big stable pay check, and a pension. Now that that has been achieved I'm curious what options might be out there with more upside, even if there is substantially more downside. Like the questions of climbing the mountain above, it's a risk to do it, and a risk not to do it. I don't have an answer to which is the better risk to take, and I don't have any secret announcement to reveal, I'm just saying I am curious in a way I was not over the past six and half years now.

People seem to regret the things they did not do, rather than the things they did do. Psychology Today seems to write about regret every other month. In other words, it feels strange sometimes to talk about the risk of not climbing Mt. Everest, or the risk of not running 24 hour races, but those are legitimate risks that I will regret if I did not do them.

On the topic of failure, it is so much dependent on how you view it! I will be honest, I'm not always the most optimistic about my failures, but on the other hand, based on the feedback I get, I'm more positive than a lot of people. After I returned from Everest in 2014, many people viewed that as a failure for me. I did not get above basecamp, at least on the actual route. Yet for me, a situation like that happening, while unexpected, was a possibility. The best 8000 meter mountaineers seem to average about one summit for every three 8000 meter attempts, so showing up at basecamp, and not getting a shot at the summit, that happens, a large percentage of the time. At least, it used to happen more frequently when weather forecasting was not as good, equipment was not as good, and people were not as skilled.

Similarly, when Janzen Gear failed in 2010, it hurt, and I don't like talking about it, but I learned a lot from the experience and it helped me to realize that even if I fail, life is not over, there will be other jobs. I've said in the past, and it's a constantly changing number, but I am comfortable with about a 30% success rate, but as I realized recently, it depends on what we are talking about. Despite what people may think, because I don't talk about it as much outside of work, I put way more energy into my engineering than I do my running and mountain climbing, and I would really like a higher rate of success in that part of my life. Similarly, I like to have more success in running than mountain climbing (as measured by achieving my race goal time or distance, and summiting the mountain) because I run maybe two big races a year, yet I can climb seven 14ers in seven days, and the consequences of a potential failure (death) on a mountain are more significant than in a race.

Similarly, Ed Viesturs said that the statistics of 8000 meter mountaineering deaths didn't apply to him, and I get what he means, so many people die from inexperience (or overconfidence) that if you can rule that out, the statistics are much different.

Risks are all around us, and we all fail regularly, it's just a question of which risks will you take and what failures are you okay with?

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