Meaningful versus calculated risk

For some risks, numbers don't matter

For some risks, numbers don’t matter.

When I think about risky decisions, I keep coming back to this one story. I heard it two decades ago when I was a cadet, and I jotted down the author as Leslie D. Weatherhead. The story’s likely legend, but it moved me enough to scribble in a notebook. I’ve glanced at it countless times since. 

“When a soldier was injured and could not get back to safety, his buddy went out to get him, against his officer’s orders. He returned mortally wounded, and his friend, whom he had carried back, was dead.

The officer was angry. ‘I told you not to go,’ he said. ‘Now I’ve lost both of you. It was not worth it.’

The dying man replied, But it was, sir, because when I got to him, he said, ‘Jim, I knew you’d come.’”

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How do we decide to take risks? 

Not well, of course. We’re human. We’re full of biases.

But still, we must. We’ll always have to fight-or-flight. And so we calculate risk, both with long-lead times and blink-speed times. 

Where we can, we rely on cheat sheets, checklists, and analytical techniques that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. 

These can be useful. When you really quantify something with loads of data and modeling, like weather, then using language that quantifies risk makes sense. Sherman Kent’s words of estimative probabilitywritten for the Central Intelligence Agency—is one way to talk about risk (i.e., rain is “probable” tomorrow, which means roughly a 75 percent chance for rain, give or take 12 percent). Evaluate risk using quantifiable language, then make your plan. 

But step back and you’ll see that calculated probabilities may matter a lot less than we think. 

Often, we don’t have enough feedback. Or the data might be too messy. An unknown variable, like dark matter, gets in the way. Or we can’t pin down precise cause and effect. 

Most important, we’re human. Probabilities of success and failure don’t typically matter in the things that matter most. “Not everything that counts can be counted,” wrote William Bruce Cameron, “and not everything that can be counted counts.” When the stakes are high to us, sometimes we throw out the odds. 

At war, if risk calculation tells you failure is likely—do you surrender? 

In love, if risk calculation tells you she probably won’t notice you—do you move on?

In business, if risk calculation tells you the pitch almost certainly won’t succeed—do you quit? 

Imagine Goliath comes to your door and demands your child (call this the “Hunger Games” scenario). Or a thief demands your wedding band, a multi-generation heirloom once worn by a Holocaust-survivor-relative. Or you’re onboard Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, or a French train being assaulted by terrorists. Or maybe your entire space company rides on a single successful launch after three recent failures. 

Some of these are fiction, and some extreme, but the real world also presents high stakes, personal challenges. When we talk about the intersection of humans and high risk, we should generally prefer meaningful rather than calculated risk. 

Of course, where we can, we should account for risk figures that can be pinned down. But in the end most of these roads lead to subjectivity. It gets down to the fact that it’s not about the numbers. What does this mean to you? It’s usually as simple as How bad do you want it?, or even, Is this worth dying for? 

If “really bad,” and “yes,” then fight. Keep going, no matter how poor the odds. 

If “not so bad,” and “no,” then flight. Walk away. Keep your powder dry for next time.

In the end, numbers can’t give you meaning in high stakes, personal risk.

Only you can. 

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*Afterthought:

“Time has a purpose. The meaning of a sentence becomes clear when we put a period at the end of it. The same applies to life. When we talk about things worth dying for, we’re really talking about the things worth living for, the things that give life beauty and meaning. Thinking a little about our mortality puts the world in perspective. It helps us see what matters, and also all the foolishness of things that, finally, don’t matter. Your hearse, as my father might say, won’t have a luggage rack.” 

“It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to ask what we’re willing to die for. What do we love more than life? To even pose that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age. And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary who—with God’s help—will someday redeem a late-modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.” (Charles J. ChaputThings Worth Dying For)

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt