Risky behaviour

By Craig Nudelman

This year I’m taking a large risk, and it’s one that I’ve been preparing for over 12 months. 

I decided last year that I’m going to have surgery to remove the part of my brain that causes my epilepsy. 

For those of you who don’t remember my February 2020 column (read here), my epilepsy is part of my identity; it’s something that I’m proud of. However, after 25 years of having seizures which are not fully controlled, I’m hoping that after the surgery, I’ll be seizure-free. 

When I tell people I’m having brain surgery, they are quite shocked. “This is a massive risk,” they say. And it is. There’s no denying it. 

In fact, for people with frontal lobe epilepsy (which I have), it’s 50/50 whether the surgery will be successful, according to numerous academic articles. However, I’ve set the date, and I’ll be going under in the first week of October. 

Seeing people’s reactions to my risky move has made me question why people are so risk averse and how this affects us on a daily basis. The most common issue that we, as humans, have with risk is that we’ll face some kind of loss. Let’s use a risky money decision as an example. The fear of losing R1000 for example, is of greater concern than hoping to gain R5000. This is something that Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has written about. He deduced that ‘most’ people do not want to lose items and assets, and that we often focus more on how much we may lose rather than what we may gain. Research shows that this behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean that we lack self-confidence, are neurotic (as most members of the ‘tribe’ might say we are), or are paranoid. It’s just that we would rather see the retention of the status quo and keep things running smoothly. 

This is similar to the point made by another academic, Tory Higgins from Columbia University, who spent 20 years researching risk and people’s attitude towards it. Instead of terming this behaviour as ‘risk-averse’, he prefers to understand it as ‘preventative’ and being a bit more ‘conservative’. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Heidi Grant builds on his theory to differentiate between those who are completely averse to chance-taking and ‘the rest of us’. She states, “The rest of us are promotion-focused, see our goals as opportunities to make progress and end up better off, and are not particularly averse to risky choices when they hold the potential for rich gains.”

Another fascinating blog written for the Stanford AI Lab by Minae Kwon and Dylan Losey speaks to humans and our ‘risk-aware’ tendencies. The authors surmise that a human’s actions will ultimately lead to an ideal outcome, but it is often completely random, something they call ‘noisily rational’. They state that, “humans tend to make sub-optimal choices and select the risk-averse option — even though it leads to worse expected outcomes!” From this we can understand that humans are not completely rational, but are noisily rational; we usually make the best choice, although it could come to a less than amazing outcome. 

What is an ‘amazing outcome’? Is it one where everything is perfect and nothing goes wrong? Of course not! Look at some of the great things that we have achieved as a human race – and especially as the Jewish people. As a nation, we take risks. This is seen in the story of Avraham. G-d tells Avram, in parshat Lech Lecha, to “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1). And he just goes. G-d doesn’t tell him where the land is, or what it will look like, or how much food he needs to take with him. He just risks it. This is a theme that runs throughout Jewish history, from Moses and Miriam to Ben Gurion and Bader Ginsburg. 

During the course of my journey on the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship leadership programme, I have been honoured to have attended sessions with incredible thought leaders throughout the Jewish world. One is Rabbi Dr Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, who wrote about great Jewish leaders taking risks during times of great uncertainty. She lists five key characteristics that leaders should possess to be effective leaders: being experts in their field; an understanding of the challenges that people face from multiple perspectives; having a community built on trust; a willingness to take risks; and being motivated by “ethical imperatives to save the Jewish people”. When looking at these different characteristics that our great Jewish leaders had, and BH continue to have, I try to emulate these in my own life, as both a leader and as an individual. 

Many decisions we make are pretty drastic and take a fair amount of risk. I moved to Cape Town for a girl with whom I had a long-distance relationship for a year. Nearly ten years and two children later, that, in retrospect, was a pretty good, albeit risky decision. I have changed careers and risked being rejected (which hurt every single time), but managed to survive that. And flying to Joburg at the end of 2020 (when Covid was definitely not over) was a pretty big risk in itself! 

The smallest risk, like going through the yellow light at a traffic light can’t be equated to a really big and serious risk, like brain surgery. But it all comes down to understanding what it is we’re risking and why we are doing it. And, I trust that my operation will not be a sub-optimal decision!

I wish you and your family G’mar Chatimah Tova and may you have a meaningful Yom Kippur.

Craig is a writer, Jewish professional, and tour guide extraordinaire. His deep bass voice has graced stages, synagogues and studios. He is an obedient husband, father to two spectacular daughters, and is known for dad jokes and trivia. 

• Published in the October 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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