Optimizing risks for maximum happiness

I recently decided to join a toastmaster club. I recently realized that I am very bad at public speaking. Yes, admitting it is the first step. But practice makes perfect, and I decided to get over it by practicing. Next week is my first "Ice Breaker" and as a preview to my readers, I will post it here first.

The topic is a little bit off from personal finance, but it can still be useful in your life how to optimize happiness. Enjoy!

Taking risks

Why do we take risk? It's a topic I've been thinking about for some time.

Growing up, everyone told me that hitch-hiking was a bad idea. I remember as a kid, we would tell those horror stories about hitch-hikers.

Well, hitch-hiking used to be my means of transportation on weekends (weekdays, I would take the train) when I was living in Japan. I was living in Japan one year after my undergrad. I'm originally from Montreal, Canada and Japan was as far as I could possibly go. I didn't know anyone in Japan or any connection to Japan other than having played Nintendo as a kid and memorizing all the funny Japanese programmer's name when you delivered the princess in Super Mario. I knew I had to go live in Japan.

I landed a job for a research lab called NTT Labs. NTT labs was the Japanese answer to Bell Labs, except without the same major breakthroughs. Granted the bar is very high, we're talking about Transistor, laser, C, speech coding theory, etc... But it was a great job. I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, surrounded by super smart people. I was hired to work on cutting edge technologies, exploring cool signal processing techniques. But I was also living in foreign country. I was 22.

One thing about Japan, for those who never been there, is that it's a very safe country. You could go eat on the ground in Shinjuku, the busiest subway station in the world, and you would be fine. Now try to go to Embarcadero BART station and try the same, just walking can be a hygiene challenge.

So to make it a bit more fun, I decided to add a little more risk. Of course, I would try to follow the law. I'm not talking about that kind of risk. I'm talking about calculated risk to make my life more interesting.

One risk I took, was hitch-hiking.

Hitch-hiking in a foreign country, how bad can things be?

Well, let me tell you a crazy story.

I was close to Nagano. Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics back in the 90s and the area is surrounded by mystical mountains. The kinds that samurais once fought bloody battles and now haunt.
The funny thing in Japan, is if you hitch-hike, every car will stop even if they are not picking you up. That would drive me crazy. It's either, they never saw anyone hitch-hiking, or they are just wondering why some random Canadian dude would do that on a windy road next to a huge fatal cliff.

Finally, someone decided to pick us up. In fact, our plan was to go to an electronic music festival somewhere in the mountains. Note this was pre-google maps and figuring out where it was on a Japanese map was a challenge in itself.
Our driver was a Japanese man in his 40s, maybe 50s. Rather massive guy for a Japanese, probably once had a dream to become a Sumo Wrestler. He didn't speak a word of english, except the occasional "Yes" and "No".
Instead of talking, he decided to start playing his english tape that he was studying. Perhaps, to make us feel better or perhaps to torture us.

The english tape went like this:

Financial accounting english essential week 14. This week, we will learn about accelerated depreciation and it's financial reporting implications.

Damn!... no wonder he doesn't speak english. He picked the wrong lesson. He should have got something simpler.
At this point, I knew I had to speak Japanese for the rest of the trip.

After learning about him, I found he was a Judo-sensei (master) and was going to his Judo party.

Why don't you come? He insisted

Free food and drinks. Why not? So we decided to take a little break in our trip and go there.

After eating insanely spicy Korean BBQ (for my taste buds accustomed to French food) . Meeting the 15 plus Japanese Judo apprentice. Even practicing some martial arts. I did Karate, Kung fu in the past. After arguing about which one is better suited in a real situation,
and getting my ass kicked a little bit, I think I had my answer. That's when we decided it was time for us to leave for the long night ahead of us.
At this point our Judo-Sensei (I don't remember his name) asked us, where exactly we wanted to go. After trying to explain where in mountains, by gesturing around the map, he offered to give us a ride. The ride was 45 minutes one way, that was so so nice of him to do this.

More crazy stories happened that night too, but that will have to be for another talk. Here I wanted to emphasize about the hitch-hiking part.

In the US, the FBI releases the odds of being killed or raped is about 0.000009%. This means, if you hitch-hike every day for 30 years, that risk comes up to 0.1%.

My point here is I'm ok taking risks that are occasional but will make my life more interesting.

There are 2 types of risks:

  • Incidental risks
  • Sustained risks

Hitch-hiking for me a perfect example of an incidental risk. I do it only once, and the odds of something bad (like dying) because of it is very small, but the outcome can be a lot better. It allows me to live experience that I would never have had otherwise.

There is concept called Expected Value. We are all engineers, so we understand the math of it. But thinking about how to apply it in life is not obvious.

This brings me to the sustained risks.
I try to avoid sustained risks as much as possible since they don't bring any bump in happiness. For example, I eat very healthy. I don't eat sugar, fat/oil or any processed food. I exercise. I barely eat out (only socially), rarely drink. If you do something that adds risks everyday, the odds add up and if there is an impact it will show up one day.

Also, you need to figure out if it is worth taking risks. Some things are worth taking risks for. Having a higher risk for a short amount of time can make life a lot more fun and fulfilling. It's a very personal decision and you need to find what will bring you experiences you want to live.

I'm willing to bet that I'll probably end up with a life more interesting than average by optimizing incidental risks and I'll probably live longer than average by limiting my sustained risk.

Of course, my goal is not to reduce the risk to zero, but my goal is to make every risk I take count for something. Life is short.