The privilege of risk – The Ed Techie

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Another of those values that has seeped into everyday life from start up culture is the cherished status of risk. You know the inspirational quotes people like to post on Twitter “the biggest risk is not taking a risk”, “those who will not risk, will not win” etc. And I get it, personally and professionally it’s useful to take risks. But I’ve also been struck by how this deification of risk is really a proxy for justifying privilege: I deserve it because I was willing to take the risk. But risk is itself, often a privilege.

The research that concludes that entrepreneurs don’t have a propensity for risk, they just have wealthy parents backs this up. It is less of a risk to start a company if you can be supported while doing so, and have fall back options. But it’s not limited to taking risks with your own career, it means they’re happy to risk other people’s welfare too. Sherri Spelic highlighted this piece in which a US senator talks about how he had no idea healthcare reform could be so difficult, and had no experience in doing it. But he went ahead and tried anyway. You just know that rhetoric around risk would have been bandied about, “we can only make great change by taking great risk”, that kind of thing. But of course, he wasn’t taking any risk. What he was risking was the lives of many americans. A senior manager once told me they loved risk, and I remember thinking, ‘but you aren’t affected by it’. They’d go on to a well paid job elsewhere, and not only would they be untouched by any failure of their risk but it would likely boost their status. They become a person willing to take risk, which has increased currency. This is not the case for someone who may be made unemployed in their late 50s with little chance of re-employment as a result of the change they sought to introduce.

Risk is also a privilege of age. When I worked on T171, the OU’s big elearning course, I did so without it being sanctioned by the OU. After it’s success John Naughton publicly praised the risk I’d taken in doing this, as I was on a temporary contract at the time and could have taken more secure routes to getting a permanent post. But while I felt flattered to be portrayed as brave, the truth is I was young, not yet married and didn’t have any idea that I should be doing anything different. I was naive more than courageous. I’m sure we all have similar stories. And yet, it is tempting as you get older to confer a status of glory to this, that is unmerited.

Risk becomes a vehicle by which privilege reinforces itself – only the privileged can take risks and only risk is rewarded. Which is not to say we should all be cautious and people or institutions should never venture to do unusual things. But I always have a suspicious antenna twitch when people glorify risk and ask “who was really at risk?”

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