Dangerous but Safe

danger movnat risk


Utah's Canyonlands National Park contains some of the most beautiful and harsh landscape in the world, so when I had the chance to bike and camp through it last month, I was excited to explore the terrain away from the campsite. That first evening, I headed up a rocky slope within sight of camp to really experience the landscape up close.

When I got back, it turned out I had upset one of the people I was traveling with, who saw my actions as foolishly dangerous, citing the possibility of me slipping or a tumbling rock causing me to fall. I consider myself a very cautious person (sometimes overly so), and so I was surprised that my actions had caused so much concern. I tried to explain that, while what I was doing might be dangerous, it wasn't actually risky, given my ability level and the precautions I was taking (I never went anywhere where I could fall more than 4 feet, and tested all the rocks I scrambled on to make sure they were secure, for example). I actually sustained more injuries on the bike, because I'm really clumsy on wheels. I'm not sure I made my point, but by being aware of risk, danger, and my ability level, as well as carefully assessing and balancing them against each other, I am sure I was never in any serious threat of injury.

I wanted to use this post to further explain that theory.

Last week, I wrote a post about training specifically to overcome fear. Instead of simply putting myself under physical stress, I was putting myself under mental stress in order to improve the way I handle fear and adapt to its effect on my performance.

Since fear is a response to perceived danger, in order to work with fear, we also need to be able to work with danger, and to do that safely, we need to learn how to manage risk.


First, I need to explain what I mean by risk and danger, since to most people, the terms are interchangeable. MovNat introduced the concept that the two are actually separate dimensions of a situation, and understanding that difference is the key to being able to push your limits while always remaining safe.

Danger is the threat of injury or damage in a given situation. Danger increases as the consequences get more severe. The possibility of dying in a situation would indicate extreme danger. However, just because there is a presence of danger doesn't mean we are exposed to any actual threat of injury.

Risk is the chance that you will actually encounter the danger, and it is dependent on your skill and the environment.

For example, flying an airplane is an extremely dangerous activity. The consequence for something going wrong include catastrophic death. However, the risk of anything actually happening is very low because of engineering and safety regulations. Thus, even though it is dangerous, it is not risky and so we fly regularly and without incident.

A more illustrative example is balancing. Walking across a 4-foot-wide bridge is dangerous (because there is the potential to fall to your death), but not risky for most people (since most people can maintain their balance on a 4-foot-wide surface). If you narrow the bridge to the size of a 2x4, it becomes much more risky for most people. Their skill in balancing is such that they are at great risk of falling. The danger remains the same, though.

However, if you make it a 2x4 on the ground, the danger is eliminated, but the risk remains the same. You're just as likely to fall off a 4" beam on the ground as you are a 4" beam across a cavern, ignoring the effect of fear.

Manipulating risk and danger allows you to do two things:

  1. Test and train your response to fear, and
  2. Do dangerous things safely.

The Importance of Seeking Out Danger

Why should we care about being able to deal with dangerous situations? After all, why not simply avoid unnecessary danger in the interest of prudence?

Because danger, or its perception, triggers fear, so it limits us and can be used to control us. Take the example of stairs. Most of us don't consider climbing stairs dangerous, because for most of us, the risk is so low that we can ignore any consequences. However, as we lose mobility and coordination with age, stairs become more risky, and we become very conscious of how much damage we can suffer if we do slip. We then start to fear them, and that impacts our sense of physical freedom, which of course impacts our mental and emotional sense of freedom. When we fear danger, either because we are oversensitive to risk or the risk actually is quite high, it paralyzes us.

We tend to overestimate the risk of dangerous situations if we are not accustomed to them (on the same note, it is possible to underestimate the risk of a dangerous situation we have become accustomed to, which is also bad). Learning to be comfortable around danger teaches us the limit of our abilities, helps us manage fear, allows us to feel appropriate fear, and instills confidence. Thus, it is important to test your abilities in the presence of moderate danger, as long as the real risk is kept low.

Dangerous but Safe

Take Parkour, one extreme expression of freedom in movement, for example. Many people see practitioners jumping off buildings, doing flips over cars, and running up walls and think it is foolhardy, that these people are testing fate. What they miss is that it is just as easy for an advanced traceur to walk across a rail as it is for you or I to walk across a sidewalk. So when a trained traceur runs across an I-beam 30 feet in the air, it's not really that risky.

Just remember that they started on rails and bars at ground level, where the danger was practically nonexistent, practicing until their failure rate was almost zero. They then incrementally increased the danger, balancing the ratio of risk (influenced by skill) and the consequences of failure.

Of course, some things are always going to be risky, and some things, while not that risky, have such severe consequences that they aren't worth doing. Where you draw the line is up to you; some people refuse to go skydiving.

Being able to separate and differentiate risk and danger, and being able to navigate your way between them, is an essential skill in driving personal growth, not just in fitness. Because real-life always contains the risk of danger, practicing any skill in a totally risk-free environment sets a limit on how well you will be able to apply that skill outside of training.

Furthermore, understanding that risk and danger are two different things frees you to take big risks that actually have little danger associated with them, like moving to a new city without a guaranteed job to try to make your fortune. The chance of failure or setback is quite high, but the real consequences are trivial or easily accommodated, and the rewards are worth the work.

If you can find ways to retain risk while minimizing actual danger, you can train yourself at the limit of your ability. As your ability improves, the risk decreases, and you can either increase it to maintain a challenge necessary for growth, or start increasing danger to test your capabilities under stress and expand the range of circumstances you can handle comfortably.

Photo credit: Zach Klein on Flickr