It's a natural instinct to play safe. But it's necessary to take risks, particularly if the reason is right, says GEETA PADMANABHAN
Sunitha Williams is getting ready to zoom into space. Steve Fossett almost lost his life attempting to circle the world in a hot balloon. Homemaker Bharathi is off on a trip to Manasarovar "part of which is quite risky". Ordinary people surf 30-foot waves, play the share market, walk on Chennai roads. Highly-paid employees in Sensex-shaking companies quit to start their own. History is strewn with characters who "risked their lives", TV channels routinely show "naturalists" facing wild animals with nothing more than a handycam. Car racers vroom for the thrill of rush.
You find risk-taking oddballs among animals too. Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi calls it the handicap principle. He says babblers yell at predators (instead of soaring), peacocks carry flight-inhibiting tails and deer have antlers that snag in the forest growth because animals and humans alike prosper when they take risks. This is how they proclaim how fit and fearless they are. It may be a handicap for an antelope to leap (rather than dash into the horizon) when chased by a cheetah, but its willingness to risk tells the cheetah: "Don't even bother trying." Children running towards danger and people attempting suicide do so to attract attention, to be taken seriously. And you and I know that the dare-devilry of the male is what the female of the species finds infinitely attractive. We also know that risk-aversion kills innovation. We want to try out ideas, to know if our method will work. Would you rather try and fail or not try at all? Some of us step into risk because we are natural problem solvers. Others believe that's the way to make a difference in the lives of others. The risk is justified, they say, if you are taking it for the right reasons. "I wanted to take a creative line," said Parthasarathy of MAAPS Communications who quit a secure job to start from scratch. "Repetitive work did not interest me. I love the freedom to experiment. With Abbas, I organised the star cricket match. The world still gets to see the photographs I took within 10 feet when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated."
As children we are taught to play safe. Pulled back every time we try to experiment - by teachers and parents - either for their own comfort or to protect us from failure. But to innovate is to be prepared for failures. And facing failures is to learn valuable lessons in life. Keep kids from risk, you prevent them from realising their unique strength. We boast that our kids are smarter, tech-savvy and better informed. Why should they "settle" down to similar jobs and not dream?You can't miss the mega irony here. We live longer than our grandparents. More children survive infancy. Food comes in clean packets with labels for nutrition, ingredients and best-before dates. (A packet of peanuts proclaims "Contains nuts"). Our diet, contrary to anti-junk-food activists, is not only more nutritious but also more free of adulteration than ever before. Organic and other health food stores are opening one a week. Our education levels are up, information is easy to come by. We travel. We should consider ourselves capable of deciding what is good for us, making "intelligent choices". And yet, we get unsolicited advice on what to eat and how to live. Follow the experts, you'll end up eating mushroom and tomatoes (ugh!) for breakfast, a spoonful of rice and bowls of fat-free fibre stuff for lunch and (un)preferably no dinner at all. We'll spoon in fruit pieces all day or taste "healthy chicken curry" cooked entirely in curds. This is lifestyle coercion. Want a risk-free life of "beauty"? Follow every faddist diet suggested by health promoters. In a recent TV programme, a woman said she had no friends and was thrown out of a disco for being overweight. Our society is intolerant of our "bad habits" and wants us to live in fear of moral, cultural and health policing. Risk is sin.Health may be the new religion. But we don't want anyone, least of all strangers, telling us what to do with our body anymore than we want our neighbour giving advice on how we should pray. Earlier, ill health was just tough luck, it is now the result of bad habits. It is a dubious practice when doctors give us health advice instead of just treating ailments. When it comes to kids, our behaviour is funnier. We drive them to school because walking is risky. We then complain of air pollution, depletion of fossil fuels and increasing levels of obesity. We think it is risky to eat biotech products.
Geared for risks
We are wired to take risks. It is a natural instinct like the one for survival and dominance. We adopt safety measures like automatic brakes, safety belts, speed limits and fat-free foods and go ahead and add the element of risk to life. We take a sea/river cruise, leap off bridges dangling from an elastic cord, get buffeted by a frothing river in a fragile boat, slip down an icy slope or choose to wander in the Himalayas. We pay for all this. When life becomes predictable, we act recklessly. A sense of complete safety is always balanced by the spirit of adventure. It is the craving for risk (the bad habits) that has sustained us through evolution. It is curiosity that got early man out of his cave, got the Wright brothers to fly a rickety plane and Alexander Fleming to mess around with bread mould. We need some bad habits. If nothing else, they make us human.