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Everything you ever wanted is on the other side of fear – Paul ‘Red’ Adair

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Riskcollage

On the evening of January 13, 1888, 32 men gathered at Washington DC’s fashionable Cosmos Club. They were a rare bunch, comprising Civil War vets, naval officers, mountaineers, meteorologists, engineers, naturalists, cartographers, ethnologists and explorers who had just returned from a trek through Siberia.

These were men who had been stranded in the Arctic, survived violent weather at sea, escaped animal attacks and avalanches, endured extreme hunger and persevered against the soul-crushing loneliness of traveling in remote landscapes.

Leading them at that extraordinary meeting was a short man with a shock of unruly hair and a tobacco-stained beard that continued south till it joined the hair on his chest. The right sleeve of his jacket hung empty, on account of a minié ball at the Battle of Shiloh. Two decades prior, he and his team had ventured in small skiffs into the Colorado River, making harrowing descents through boiling and churning rapids and plunges over waterfalls, until his friends determined that they had had enough.

They quit, deciding that climbing their way out of the Grand Canyon and taking their chances through the vast desert, would be safer. Thus, they left him alone in his boat, catching a last glimpse of him being thrashed around by the spray as he disappeared from sight round a bend. The man survived and completed the boat ride, returning safely to Washington. His friends didn’t – lost in the arid wilderness without food and water, they fell exhausted and drained, their bodies never found.

Some of the motivations for taking risks are obvious—financial reward, fame, political gain, saving lives. Many people willingly expose themselves to varying degrees of risk in their pursuit of such goals. But as the danger increases, the number of people willing to go forward shrinks, until the only ones who remain are the extreme risk takers, those willing to endanger their reputation, fortune, and life. This is the mystery of risk: What makes some humans willing to jeopardize so much and continue to do so even in the face of dire consequences?

The man with the scraggly hair, who had made the first successful solo attempt to navigate the ferocious Colorado, was John Wesley Powell and that chilly winter evening in Washington 1888, he and his 32 associates founded an institution that has single-handedly kept alive the romance of exploration, by bringing it into the living rooms and libraries of the world, it’s imagery so stark that it has left me in thrall for most of my conscious life – The National Geographic Society.

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The other day an old classmate from engineering school dropped in for a beer and we were reminiscing about how our lives have turned out, when he remarked,” If I could have the chance to start my career afresh, I would take more risks, speak up more on the things that I really believe in.”

I could relate to that and in fact most us can. Often we know what it is we want to do, but we still don’t do it. Why? Because we are innately risk averse and afraid of putting our vulnerabilities on the line. The status quo, while not particularly fulfilling, can seem like an easier, softer, less scary, option. We like to keep our mouths shut, instead of sticking our necks out and engaging in a ‘courageous conversation’.

When weighing up whether to take an action that could leave us vulnerable to failing or some other form or loss (of reputation, money, social standing, pride etc), we have an innate tendency to misjudge four core elements in assessing risk. Potential losses tend to loom larger than potential gains. We focus more on what could go wrong or what we might lose, instead of what might go right, when in fact the chances of shit happening are often not as high as we fear they are. We ‘catastrophize’, says Australian motivational speaker, Margie Warrell.

We come up with dire and dramatic worst-case scenarios in our minds-eye. Rather than assume that we would act quickly to head off or mitigate a situation if things started unraveling, we imagine everything spiraling shockingly out of control while we passively stand by, terrifying images flashing by – of ourselves – destitute, shunned by our family, ostracized by our peers and forever shamed by our failure.

Okay, maybe that was a bit much, but you get the hang. Maybe we don’t catastrophize quite so dramatically. But the point is, we are neurologically wired to exaggerate how bad things could get if our plans didn’t work out, and we fail to appreciate our ability to intervene to ward off further impact. We underestimate our ability to handle the consequences of risk.

From time to time, I have been picking up and leafing through Brave, by Margie Warrell. Time to time, because I can’t stand to read any self-help book for an extended period, non-stop. All these thoughts about risk are essentially from her book which, like all self-realization studies, doesn’t really say anything you don’t already know but merely packages and presents it to the reader beautifully. ‘Brave’ is a fervent exponent of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ or more aptly, ‘Fortune favors the bold’.

Warrell is speaking of taking calculated risks, of course, where the risk has been carefully analyzed and chances of winning have been determined as more or less even and contingencies are planned to afford a fighting chance against catastrophe.

Canadian researcher and social scientist, Michael Unger, has written about another kind of risk-taking – the ‘shrink-wrapping’ of children so they don’t have to face any adversities as they grow – in his Too safe for their own good. He opines that 21st Century parents are inadvertently taking away the opportunities ‘to experience the building blocks of psychosocial growth’. In order to build emotional resilience and self-confidence, it is essential for children to face up to things that make them uncomfortable – facing bullies in school, enduring the rough and tumble of summer camps, riding the public transport to get to college, taking summer jobs at the local golf course to pay for a new Iphone – these ultimately stock up the larder inside a child’s brain with the cookies that will later on help him to get through life’s challenges.

But in the ultimate analysis, a risk is no longer a risk if you have covered all the bases and made them watertight. A tightrope walker with a tether isn’t fun to watch. So is it for an Everest climber for whom his hired Sherpa has already gone ahead and fixed all the ropes and crevice-ladders and broken all the trails right up to the Third Step, the little plateau that lies just yards away from the summit of Everest.

A risk was really a risk when Neil Armstrong, in the Lunar Module 10000 feet above the lunar surface, concerned over a malfunctioning sensor, had to choose between landing on the moon and aborting and joining back with the Command Module while they still had the fuel left. The choice was between facing the possibility of being left to slowly perish in a punishingly hostile environment and not turning around, not taking the chance. Nasa had earlier told him ‘it’s your call’. There was no back-up Saturn-V with crew waiting on a launch pad back in Cape Canaveral, to come save them. Of course, Armstrong chose the former.

Did Armstrong and Aldrin carry cyanide capsules to make death easier in case? I have read of no such thing. They had simply believed that they had nothing to lose.

And that, I believe, is the key to success – willing yourself to believe that you have nothing to lose.

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One man who turned calculating risks into an art form and in the process probably did more single-handedly for the environment than anyone else in history, was Paul ‘Red’ Adair (1915-2004), a fire extinguishing genius who made putting out massive oil-field blow-outs his mission in life.

Before he took on fighting fires, during the Second World War, Red Adair was in an even riskier business – bomb disposal. His work on the disposal of unexploded shells and bombs in Japan taught him two skills that would serve him well later – how to initiate controlled explosions to put out fires and how to keep a cool head under extreme pressure and danger.

After the war, Adair set himself up in the business of fire-fighting, soon averaging 40 fires a year, extinguished or controlled, all over the world, inland and at sea. The Adair teams completed more than 1,000 assignments internationally through using explosives and drilling mud and concrete. With their distinctive cherry-red coveralls and the swashbuckling image that they had managed to garner, Red Adair and his crew soon became cult heroes in America. The 1968 John Wayne film Hellfighters was based on the life of Red Adair.

In 1991, already in his 70s, Adair faced the most daunting challenge of his career – Putting out the fires from the 117 simultaneously burning oil wells that stretched out from horizon to horizon in the Kuwaiti desert, wells that Saddam Hussein had intentionally lit, in a typical loser’s ‘if I can’t have them, you can’t have them’ mindset.

When Red Adair arrived on the scene, the air had already turned unbreathable over a vast 1000 sq km stretch of arid land. Day had turned into dusk and the sun had become a faintly illuminated disc which you could easily look directly at., so thick was the smoke over the ground. The risks to life and limb and the long-term health risks to those who were fighting the fires were enormous.

Adair was being paid millions but it was the challenge of the ‘kill’ that had brought him there. The US Government had estimated a span of five years to put out all the 117 fires and planned for at least a hundred casualties in the process.

Red Adair set to work. First he piped in huge amounts of sea water through the very pipelines that had earlier carried the crude – for the purpose of containment. Then, while the water formed little lakes around the well heads, he set off massive explosive charges whose sudden detonation sucked the oxygen right out of the air around the wells, thereby literally asphyxiating the fire.

Red Adair and his crew did their job in nine months, with not a single casualty.