Risk and Life

Every now and then a friend tells me that he/she worries that I like to occasionally ride a motorcycle without a helmet. Some other people, not knowing me well so they are not aware that I take criticism well but stupidity not that much, are surprised by my answers. At a party in Miami when someone mentioned that I came to the party riding my motorcycle without a helmet, this girl said “that is stupid”. My answer was as incisive and as impolite as necessary to guarantee that one of us was going to leave the party immediately.

It bugs me how people feel such an unstoppable impulse to pass judgement, and also feel free to tell you their opinions to your face, intensified by some insult like “stupid” and then are so surprised and offended when you give them a strong reply.

But that was the exception. Most people are just concerned and when they ask me to do something like wear a helmet, or not ride my motorcycle through Transnistria, or not carry a gun, or not visit certain countries, or whatever is the issue at hand, when they say that they do it with an honest concern and love and respect.

I have been thinking about it for years and not too long ago I saw a video of the F1 race when Ayrton Senna died in a violent crash, at the age of 34. The memory of that day made me think about it even more. Being a F1 racer is very dangerous. More dangerous than anything I have done. Senna knew the risks in his life, and he was still willing to pursue his dreams.

At the time there were strong responses to his death, varying from respect for a man who greatly represented Brazil as one of the best pilots who ever lived to unchecked contempt for someone who risked his life, and lost it, wasting what is the most important thing of all (life itself) in the search of adventure or prize. Most people questioned the value of risk-taking. Some say that people like Senna are selfish because they hurt their family and friends that way.

In very similar fashion, people openly criticize my choices when I go for what will bring me the most pleasure, adventure, or discovery. Those comments sometimes bother me not for what they are but because I like and respect the people making the comments, although I don’t agree with their thinking. So because I like them, I think they deserve more than just an answer I can give in 10 seconds while talking at a party.

My friends are often not aware of how much thought and care I have been investing in the things I do. Nobody spends several decades doing the things I do while taking unmeasured risks. We like to say that there are fast bikers and there are old bikers, but there are no fast old bikers. Some of my friends have only seen me arriving, riding my big motorcycle, wearing jeans, t-shirt, boots, and sunglasses. They never looked at the years of training and development and discipline behind this. I am actually a very careful and conservative rider. I ride a lot slower, a lot more careful and defensive than most riders that fly by me with their fast motorcycles and shiny helmets.

Risk is not a single binary equation: Yes or no. Risky or not risky. It is not that simple. Risk is something that you estimate in real time. It is a complex combination of many factors. Riding motorcycles for instance is a very complex activity that involves skill, self control, good equipment, strategy, discipline, accident avoidance, etc. The helmet is a small part of that very complex equation.

We can argue that most people risk their health every day through largely avoidable diet and lifestyle choices. I have survived dozens of my friends who died to car accidents, suicide, drug overdose, lung cancer, and heart attack. Most of them led what was by all appearances a risk-free life.

I don’t take idiotic risks. I think about the things I will do and I ask myself about the odds that things can go bad, how prepared I am to do things, how much of the situation is under my control and how much isn’t. The deaths of my friends and my idols, like Senna, remind me to reflect carefully on my own decisions about risk. There’s a constant tension in all exploration and adventure, between pushing yourself into the unknown but trying not to push too far. The best any of us can do is to tread that line carefully. I am making my choices clear-eyed. I know the risks in his life, and I am willing to pursue my dreams.

Because there only one thing I fear more than crashing, or getting sick, or dying. I fear not living.