Lately, I've been hard at work writing a book entitled Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously, (which not so incidentally, went on sale Monday.) While corresponding and talking with readers of my previous book, Backyard Ballistics, I found that many people enjoy taking technical, physical risks. And it seemed to me that the people who did so seemed to be a bit more intellectual curious, more self aware, and even a bit happier than those who were not. Was this true? Are people who take some well considered physical risks better off than those who do not?
Basically, I wanted to know this: is it intrinsically better to be an Evel Knievel or a Caspar Milquetoast? Better to be Chuck Yeager or Niles Crain? Are lion tamers happier with their lives than monks?
Psychologists can assess and numerically describe a person's risk-taking proclivity. Risk-taking behavior can be summarized as a single number from one to 100. A one is a house-bound agoraphobe and a 100 is a heroin junkie with a death wish. The distribution of risk-taking proclivity is described by a normal, bell-shaped curve. Not surprisingly, most people cluster around the mean score, as the graph shows.
But here's the cool thing. I found that moderate, rational, risk takers, that is, those with scores between the mean and one standard deviation to the right are the people who are most satisfied with their lives. I call that area "the golden third" because it's roughly 1/3 of the population. Studies (and there are several) show that people who take just a bit more risks than average, that is, those who live their lives in the golden third, tend to do better than average. They tend to be more satisfied with their lives and more fulfilled. To me, that's a stunning conclusion.
Next question: is it possible to consciously work towards becoming a better risk taker? I believe so; basically it's just practice. To write Absinthe and Flamethrowers, I researched and documented a dozen or so interesting projects designed to build risk-taking skills. For instance, if you know how, you can walk into a Home Depot and come out with everything you need to build a rocket - a real one. You can make gunpowder. You can throw knives, eat dangerous food, drive fast, and do all sorts of things that would make your mother shudder. But understand the difference between being cool in the Golden Third and just stupid:
Making an propane accumulator flame cannon - Golden. Making pipe bomb filled with match heads - Stupid.
Driving an Audi Q5 at 120 mph on the Autobahn- Golden. Friday night buzz driving on the Interstate - stupid
Fugu (tiger pufferfish) sushi in Yokohama - Golden. Boiling up a pot of pufferfish soup at home - stupid.
Using Bartitsu and a cane to fend off a thug - Golden. Street brawling with homemade nunchucks- stupid.