May 10, 2023

In some circles I have a reputation of looking for trouble by pursuing reckless activities, compare me to real daredevils though and I may be living a pretty flavorless life – our approach to risk, and risk tolerance is very relative. 

Risk tends to be highly emotional and we rarely analyze it rationally, yet I think this is exactly what we should do to take wise decisions on how much risk is acceptable in our life.

The first thing to know – there is always a risk to your life and limb and you can’t eliminate it. In fact, there are a lot of stats collected about it, used for things like life insurance or estimating the cost of retirement:

(Probability of Death per year at given age)

Me being a male in my 40s the average chance of death in a given year is roughly 1/1000 or 0.1% even if I have an average mellow life. If you obsess with a healthy lifestyle and avoid anything remotely risky in your life. It is also interesting to look at the probability of dying in a car crash as another baseline figure – in the US there is roughly 0.01% of dying from a car crash a year (slightly higher in North Carolina) where I live. 

Using these numbers it becomes possible to put various activities in perspective.

Running a Marathon has a risk of death of roughly  1/100000 (probably skewed towards people with underlying conditions) which is 1/100 of the baseline yearly number or roughly 4 days – nothing to worry about, especially considering the benefits of long-distance running which reduce your baseline risk and increase your quality of life. 

Let’s look at something else I enjoy – mountaineering. This activity has some very dangerous options, such as Annapurna with a fatality rate of roughly 30%, to which even some of the most experienced people are not immune.    

You’re statistically risking decades of your life by attempting to Climb Annapurna, which is well outside of my comfort zone at this point. Many other activities bring adrenaline-joy and a sense of achievement to my life, without being so risky. 

Let’s look at a more mellow mountain – Mont Blanc. I can’t find the exact official number but a reasonable estimate puts it at 0.15% – quite a number. The problem with such a number though it counts all the death, not breaking down it by cause, and for such an easily accessible mountain as Mont Blanc, there is likely to be many people going on their own without proper equipment and experience, to their demise. How much is there a risk for individuals with reasonable climbing experience, attempting a summit with an experienced guide in good conditions? I’d expect about 1/5th of the baseline or 0.03% which is not as bad – corresponding to 3-4 months of risk when living a boring life.

Looking at outdoor adventures, in particular, I like to look at kinds of risks that are not that much related to individual skill and fitness – rock falls, avalanches, weather – although all these risks can be managed to a certain extent, they can’t be eliminated completely. On mentioned Annapurna – more than half of deaths are Avalanche related. I put a special significance on such risk related to luck rather than preparedness.

You could also use this approach to think about your behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic, at least when it comes to your personal safety rather than the social impact of spreading the virus. I know a number of people who had embraced severe isolation and restriction for fear of their life for the better part of 2 years, this is of course not my choice. 

Early in the pandemic, when the probability of death was high, it was 0.2% for someone in their early 40s. If you multiply this by additional chance of being expected when being extremely cautious of 25% this gives you a chase of death of 0.05% or something which corresponds to 6 months of background risk – not something which would “stop me from living my life”. 

This brings us to another very personal topic – to what extent we can tolerate “inconveniences” and to what extent we value “fun” in life which can be bad for our longevity. I think most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about it and even if we do lack self-control to follow through on behavior we consider rational. 

Things like exercising or healthy eating are well proven to reduce your risk of death (and increase quality of life) but very hard for many to follow through on consistent basics. Many healthy habits like sanitizing hands or wearing masks during COVID times fall into the same group. Some people are rational and find it easy to consistently follow “best practices”, for me though it is not easy to build habits when they require doing something which does not give instant gratification, so I am trying to be very deliberate in picking my fights. 

Being able to express risks and rewards mathematically would surely help me – instead what we get in most cases are just recommendations with no numbers to back me up. For example, my Dermatologist recommended me to put sunscreen on in the morning every day but would be completely at a loss when I would ask her to quantify the impact on the probability of getting skin cancer vs just using sunscreen when significant exposure to the sun is expected. As such this is not a habit I chose to develop. 

The amount of risk you are ready to take should always be your personal choice. There is no such thing as risky or not risky – risk is not binary, and risk can never be entirely avoided. Calculating and managing risk can lead to a life that is exciting and still relatively safe.

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