The Antidote to Risk Aversion


Ben Domenech has a rousing post on The Federalist about the risk aversion of Millennials:

There is comfort in the safety gained. But, slowly and surely, there is something lost, too—an idea that once lived here, in this new world. It was a belief that we are not prisoners of our destiny, that the world we pass on can exceed the one we were born into. This is not a uniquely American belief, but a human one, although not all cultures acknowledge or honor it. It was here in America where this belief was uniquely understood from our inception in our creed. We are born with an equal claim to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of what lies beyond that far horizon. To deny this is to break faith with our own humanity, rejecting what is best in ourselves.

His most striking detail, though, is an anecdote from Megan McArdle, from 2014, which I think I’ve read before, but to which Domenech applies a new context.  

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Here’s McArdle:

The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself.

And this is what she asked me:

“I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”

I was floored. All I could think as I talked to this poor girl is “America, you’re doing it wrong.”

If these writers have identified a real trend, I fear their results will be akin to those who attempted to argue the importance of traditional marriage on grounds of tradition alone.  The challenge of our comfortable existence is to re-articulate the logic that culture allowed us to take for granted in understanding what sorts of people we should be.

The antidote to risk aversion isn’t a rousing speech, but a reason to take risks.  If we’re not going to throw our children out of the nest and expect them to fly or die, such lessons can’t be taught as dogma — as in, “a life with risk taking is a better life.”  They’ll only ask: Why, and by what measure?  America can’t just give the kids permission to take risks; we need to give them an intuitive sense of what they gain by doing so.

This topic merits further thought, and I’m aware that my initial prescription will seem all too obvious to readers who know the basis of my thinking, but the most plainly missing piece is spiritual.  The existential security of a loving God who constitutes the point of our lives — the intention of the universe — makes the risk of a difficult class or a dangerous occupation a relatively minor consideration.

In materialist terms, we can attempt to resolve McArdle’s 10th-grade acquaintance’s dilemma by getting adults with jobs to give to value students’ experimentation over perfection.  How much more fundamental and important, though, if young adults weren’t acting in anticipation of an employer’s judgment after their schooling is complete, but divine judgment of the quality of our lives?

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  • Rhett Hardwick

    Although it approaches the problem from a different perspective, I commend Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”. While it concerns Global Warming, it makes the point that a society in fear is easily controlled. And makes the population dependent on the government.

    I have noticed differing millennials. I row on a local lake. Once a “blue collar” resort, rising prices have altered that. It is now 50-50 “blue collar” millennials who inherited a house and “young pros” who purchased. When flipped out by an inescapable wake, I’m in trouble and usually facing a long swim. At my age, getting back in a racing single is no easy deal. Usually a blue collar guy will “rescue” me by firing up his boat. On shore, a “young pro” will frequently offer that he “thought to call 911″. I hope they all got their 4.0’s.

    To be fair any high school kid who is “resume building” and knows the importance of a 4.0, cannot be blamed for “not risking it”. Harvard Law School presents a path to success that Roger Williams U. Law School rarely does. I think the fault may lie with admissions standards.

  • BasicCaruso

    “…only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”

    Process improvement experts, including W. Edwards Deming, suggest the obvious: abolish the system of ranking students and awarding grades.
    Grades don’t prepare children for the “real world” — unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant. Nor are grades a necessary part of schooling, any more than paddling or taking extended dictation could be described that way. Still, it takes courage to do right by kids in an era when the quantitative matters more than the qualitative, when meeting (someone else’s) standards counts for more than exploring ideas, and when anything “rigorous” is automatically assumed to be valuable. We have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    It might be interesting to study the paths of the children of the truly wealthy, who do, in fact, have unlimited options. I have known a few and was not impressed by their choices, or achievements. The number I am considering is probably statistically insignificant.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I recall an interesting article I read recently (sorry can’t find a link) it postulates that Harvard (and the ivy League) moved away from a grades based admission in the 1920’s to consider the “whole student”. The motivation was the fact that Harvard’s admissions were about 30% Jewish. After the adoption of the “whole student” approach Jewish admissions fell to 15%. The system permits denial, or acceptance, for almost any reason,usually not stated. He presents examples of other minority groups and their admissions rates, according to the temper of the times. He does provide numbers which seem to support this.

    My daughter went to an Ivy League school, she has not truly recovered. I doubt that she ever will.

  • The Misfit

    The risk averse are the top twenty percent wealth -wise families that do everything in their power through private and public means to remain in their class. No big news there. Republicans are their backers in everything from tax policy, local zoning, law and order policies , denial of expanded protections for the public at large, to the private where schools, access to jobs and housing all exempt but a few. Who are the risk takers? Well immigrants for one group. Poor people are risk takers too but are hardly ever given plaudits for it. Typically it is prison or more poverty.

    • Mike678

      Nice opinion, unsupported by anything but your own bias. In a word, worthless.