Taking risks is an essential part of life and should be encouraged. Discuss.

Taking risks is an essential part of life and should be encouraged. Discuss. (GCE ‘A’, General Paper 8807/01, 2012)

Note the two parts to this question: 1) that risks are essential, and that 2) such risks should ideally be encouraged. Work out the assumptions yourself yeah, the meaning of important keywords (what kind of risks? Set the scope. Encouraged? Why? How? Why ‘should’?) and command words, and also the requirements of the question. Yep I know this ain’t the proper length but oh wells, my exams’re over anyway 😛

Risks contain an element of unpredictability. Yet it is predictably and inevitably found in all areas of our lives. When we choose to put food into our mouths, we are taking the risk that it will provide nourishment instead of poisoning our bodies. When we turn left at an unfamiliar street instead of continuing forwards, we are taking a small gamble that the path we took is the fastest route home. However, these are merely trivial decisions, without entailing life-changing consequences. The kind of risks worth mentioning are those that goes against the conventional and may make-or-break our lives. Given these heavy implications, I personally feel that we need to first weigh all the possible benefits and costs of the risk before encouraging or taking it. Hence some risk-taking should ideally be encouraged for it presents us a fighting chance for better prospects or improvements; but not all due to certain limitations of the individual risk-taker in question, as well as the nature of certain risks.

To begin with, risk-taking is an essential and inevitable part of our lives. Embracing risks grants us the opportunity to obtain greater benefits and avert potential losses especially in times of change. A small and conservative nation, Singapore’s government then had to choose between building two Integrated Resorts casinos to boost its tourism industry and growth, and upsetting the public over fears of a rise in social problems like problem gambling. The government went ahead with its plan, reaping tremendous economic returns but not without implementing policies to allay their concerns. The city of Seattle shocked many when it raised the minimum wage to an unprecedented US$15 per hour, because it was commonly thought that doing so would increase unemployment and hurt growth. Contrary to conventional and – now we know – misinformed belief, Seattle enjoyed greater increases in GDP growth compared to other cities who adamantly kept the minimum wage low. Even though making changes in corporate policies to accommodate millenials were deemed to be a bad move due to their tendency for job-hopping, Bob Greenberg’s R/GA took the risk. While other companies were severely hit and crushed economically-speaking, his company was able to tide over the economic crisis in 2008. We can therefore see that taking risks can strengthen one’s resilience during times of major and imminent change. If we do not adapt or take risks, our inaction can bring us greater disadvantages instead, as seen when Kodak, a once flourishing company, fell when it failed to embrace new innovation.

Risk-taking that can help further our progress and advances, particularly in the entrepreneurial and arts realm, should be promoted as well. If Boyan Slat had not chose to expand his school science project into a full-fledged one, we would not have the promising ‘The Ocean Cleanup’ project as a possible means to clearing marine litter from our beautiful oceans. Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that contribute to the nation’s economy could not have been formed without daring citizens taking the risk to realise their potential. In the tiny red dot of Singapore, Olivia Lum’s Hyflux, Sim Woong Hoo’s Creative, and Ron Sim’s OSIM have achieved great success. Without risk-taking, there would hardly be innovation, and we would not be experiencing the astounding breakthrough of the iPhone with its unique design and technology. Risks are also inherent in the creative hub of the arts. When someone chooses to become an artist, he is choosing a risky path which often does not provide a stable living. When an artist produces a work, he is risking embarrassment, failure, criticism and judgement from others. When an artist inadvertently or otherwise infringes on censorship boundaries in the name of artistic expression, he risks scrutiny and disapproval. The fact that we can enjoy the abundant variety of works of art and innovation today is due to the resilience of artists and entrepreneurs who undertook risks.

Moreover, risk-taking is sometimes necessary if we want freedom and improvement in society. Without taking risks, how can we know if we cannot enact change, excel and accomplish further, or discover our full potential? There are many respectable figures and individuals who stood up against all odds to further their cause, from Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in the civil movement in America, to Nelson Mandela against apartheid, Malala Yousafzai advocating for women’s education despite the threat of the Taliban, ordinary citizens of Arab Spring fighting against oppressive regimes which were in power for decades, to political artist Ai Weiwei from China. The discriminated stratum of society have also voiced out their feelings and woes without letting the possible consequences of backlash and increased displeasure directed towards them from the majority from smothering their voice. People with alternative lifestyles who used to hide their sexual orientation and tendencies have “come out” despite the ingrained social stigma, hoping to correct the public’s stereotypes. Lawyers have also went public with their mental illnesses, such as Professor Elyn Saks in ‘The Centre Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness’, in an attempt to enlighten the public about misconceptions about lawyers being “superman” or “superwoman” and their “invincibility”. In spite of the risks of having their image tarnished and ridiculed at, and of their intentions backfiring, the courageous risk-taking nature of these people should be encouraged.

In the face of danger or harm, there may be a call for risk-taking as something larger is at risk. These risk-takers are whom we call heroes, individuals who brave seemingly insurmountable challenges and help others somewhat altruistically. War heroes and leaders deserve special mention as they bravely took on the heavy responsibility of the lives of millions of people in their actions. John Rabe’s attempts to delay the Nazi party’s attacks on the Chinese in Nanking save a remarkable 250,000 lives. Ronald Reagan and Aung San Suu Kyi both stood steadfastly against the Soviet Union and Burmese military junta respectively for the interests of their people. The Flight 93 incident is an example where ordinary people like Mark Bingham courageously led a revolt against the terrorists who hijacked the plane. In these cases, inaction could have led to greater harm. Risk-taking is sometimes necessary and obligatory in protecting people’s welfare.

In addition, science itself is risky, being built on theories and uncertainties. Scientific research is akin to groping around a gloomy dark cavern; who is to know where the ethical minefields and trespassing boundaries lie? Without risks, scientific innovation and technological advances could hardly have happened. Nuclear energy, while destructively powerful, also possesses the potential to meet the world’s energy needs. Stem cell research may potentially revolutionise the medical field; yet it runs the risk of offending groups of people like the Intelligent Design community, the conservative, and the religious. With such adverse ramifications on one hand and seductively desirable benefits on the other, should we take the risk or not? In this case, where there are heavy implications, there should be a constructive and dedicated debate between scientists, governments, corporations and the public over the direction science should take.

Undeniably, risk-taking, while essential, should not always be encouraged. Not everyone can become a risk-taker. There is this fear of the unknown, that anything could happen, or even the worse would happen. To the less strong of us, risk-taking may bring about intolerable levels of anxieties. This is especially apparent and exacerbated when one fails the gamble, and is unable to accept the consequences of failure. There are many entrepreneurs who have failed in their venture, leading to the loss of millions, bankruptcy, and even lives. Heavily tormented and demoralised by repeated failures, Jody Sherman committed suicide, and his last start up, Ecomum, went bust afterwards. Ilya Zhitormirsky, co-founder of Diaspora, and Eric Salvatierre are other entrepreneurs who ended their lives. The list goes on for “failed” artists and so on.

However, this can be mostly attributed to society’s failure-averse culture. Failure is often seen as a bad thing, hence most people avoid taking risks as much as they can, sticking to the tried-and-true path of conventionality. As such, before risk-taking should be encouraged, society needs to learn to embrace failure and value the lessons learnt from it. Starting from our upbringing, the family institution should serve to guide children on making mistakes and remedying them. Since risk-taking in the business world is paramount to the economy and unavoidable, the state should incentivise and lay safety networks to encourage entrepreneurial risk-taking. As society becomes more open to risk-taking and its consequences of failure, taking risks can and should then be encouraged.

That is not to say that all kinds of risk-taking should be encouraged. When the costs and losses blatantly outweigh the benefits, or when the odds are plainly stacked against one’s favour, taking risks should not be encouraged. An instance would be the aforementioned Flight 93 incident. The circumstances then may have situationally and emotionally fuelled the passengers to take the risk of standing up to the terrorists. When the very lives of the individual or people involved are at stake, should risk-taking really be encouraged? Some may “rather be a live coward than a dead hero”. Moreover, let us not forget the horrific incidents at Fukushima Daiichi, Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island – the destructive power of nuclear energy is not to be trifled with. These beg the question: should we risk it?

Here, there is a need for us to be educated on the kind of risks we should take. We need to first holistically consider the nature and outcome of the risk – such as the stakes involved, the people affected, whether the implications can be managed, the chances of success or failure, for example.

Additionally, risk-taking should not be encouraged when it is blatantly immoral and wrong. Testing for the possible effects of a medical drug on humans – and usually, animals – is ethically wrong, however important and necessary the experiment may be. The testing and seeding trials for Pfizer’s neurotin and Merck’s Vioxx hold certain risks that we need not think twice about stopping it. Russell George’s dumping of iron into oceans with its inherent risk and without proper scientific justification should not be promoted, especially when it could obviously upset the ecological balance of nature severely. Risk-taking in gambling, drugs, theft, and playing with the law leaves little to be argued for.

Large-scale risk-taking should sometimes not be encouraged when many people vehemently oppose it for justified reasons and concerns. The state or representative individual making the decision on behalf of others may not be in the best position to do so. Taking the socially precarious risk of publicly or legally accepting people with alternative lifestyles into society should be made after much deliberation and discussion with the public. Doing so also needs to be well-timed, so as to minimise the risk of socially stratifying tension and discrimination. The Singapore government’s move to build casinos was also made with careful consideration of the risks and its impacts before proceeding, with greater assurance and confidence of the intended economic success.

On a final note, taking risks should be encouraged if inaction instead holds greater adverse consequences and could bring out the potential of the individual or relevant parties to greater heights. It must nonetheless be noted that not everyone or every risk should be encouraged due to certain limitations or circumstances surrounding the risk to be taken, however crucial it may be. Separately, arguing for the majority of risk-taking, “the biggest risk is to not take risks”. This is particularly so when taking risks is essential as it is often better to “act than be acted upon”, as can be testified in the entrepreneurial realm for instance. For this, we need to inculcate a failure-friendly environment where people are not afraid to take risks, and are empowered to fight for better prospects. Therefore, some risk-taking should ideally be encouraged in hopes of a more successful future.