Many years ago, one of your ancestors announced: “Hey, there’s not enough food to go around – why don’t we climb that mountain range and see what’s on the other side?” They did this with the full knowledge that the answer might be “nothing”, and that everyone would die from hunger and exhaustion. People are hotwired to take risks for only the potential of reward … and they always have been.

Risk taking drives progress – otherwise you’d be reading this in a cave rather than on your tablet or phone, or in a paperback or this magazine. You see, we are – every one of us – descended from a long line of successful risk takers.

In an earlier extract, when we talked about driving safety, we suggested never overtaking when you only think it’s safe. Many have learnt this is just too dangerous – perhaps having experienced a bottom-clenching near miss or suddenly remembering the children in the car with them.

Regardless, most remain tempted to make the overtaking manoeuvre merely thinking it’s safe, so we’ll explore the nature of temptation.

Here’s a quick and dirty list. Now, be honest, have you ever:

  • Driven at 50% (or more) above the speed limit?
  • Driven when you think you might be above the drink-drive limit (maybe you had one more than you intended or were driving first thing in the morning while trying to do a mental hours/units calculation)?
  • Taken a drug given to you by a friend?
  • Smoked?
  • Drunk your weekly alcohol allowance in a single session?
  • Made a really sensible (and genuine) New Year’s resolution about your health (maybe to lose weight, exercise more, or stop smoking) that didn’t last until the end of January?
  • Watched a feel-good film with a “get your priorities right” message that had you in tears and promising to change the way you behave and/or interact with others, but you didn’t actually manage to enact these changes for even a week or so?
  • Had unprotected sex with a relative stranger whose sexual health you had no idea about?
  • Had any sort of sex your long-term partner would be furious about (protected or otherwise)?

You’ll be amazed at how many people shout “House!”, maybe even with a certain amount of pride. Most will be guilty of a handful of these, with only 1% or so entirely in the clear.

The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde said that he could resist “everything except temptation”. British satirist Stephen Fry quips that what he does with temptation is “yield to it straight away as it saves on the faffing about”. And it was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who said humour is “merely common sense speeded up” – so if you’re smiling now, you know exactly where we’re coming from!

Why do we give in so easily to temptation?

Everything we do has a trigger (a sign, a want, or a need), but also has a consequence. It’s these consequences that often drive our behaviour. Consequences can either be:

  • Soon or delayed
  • Certain or uncertain
  • Positive or negative

The trouble is that anything with a “soon”, “certain”, and “positive” consequence is very tempting, and we have already discussed what happens when temptation rears its ugly head … Every time you give in, you roll the dice another time. Sooner or later even you will be unlucky.

The “uncertain”, “negative”, and “delayed” consequences can be incredibly damaging – just from that little list above: car accidents, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, HIV … things that kill tens of millions around the world annually. But, in the short term, we crack on and let the future take care of itself, don’t we?

It’s in our wiring

Try this exercise: close your eyes and try to imagine in detail a stranger (like Barack Obama, maybe). Now switch and try to picture yourself 20 years from now. 

You might be surprised to know that on both occasions your brain scan would look exactly the same. “You” 20 years from now is a stranger (just as Obama is), which is why so many sensible messages about improving your health now are often ignored (because “you” in 20 years’ time is “delayed” and “uncertain”). On this point, some pension firms are now apt to take a photo of you, digitally age it, then talk to you about your pension with that photo staring at you on the desk. They’ve found that contributions go through the roof!

This is so important because if the safe way to do something is perceived as slow, uncomfortable, or inconvenient in any way, you will be tempted to cut the corner to get something more “soon, certain, and positive” – finishing the job so that you can clock off and get to the pub, for example. 

Exercise is another example of how consequences control us. We all know how important it is. It’s one of the seven habits of highly successful people (even people with chauffeurs walk, run, and ride bikes more on average than people who can’t afford a car). It’s the nearest thing to a silver bullet mental health-wise, as it builds resilience and busts stress. People who are fit and healthy live longer. They even get more and better sex. 

Yet still, hardly any of us exercise as often as we should. Why? Because it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable, and the benefits are rarely instantaneous (or “delayed” and “uncertain” to use our previous terms).

Don’t worry, though. If you’re thinking about getting into an exercise regime and have struggled in the past, here’s a top tip just for you: join a gym today and go at the same time as someone you find attractive. Studies show you’ll go regularly and work out harder when you’re there. Funny how influential those “soon”, “certain”, and “positive” consequences can be, isn’t it?

Individualised risk-taking: saving seconds or feeling alive?

This concept of consequence influence is another reason why driving is so dangerous.

The vast majority of folks will park after a long drive, having (at the very least) been tempted once or twice to “risk their lives” just to save a few (“soon, certain, and positive”) minutes. Some take the risk every time just to save a few seconds; some just to show off or feel “dangerous”.

So, in closing, let us offer you our core message of Safety Savvy:

In this world you are surrounded by risk, and you (yes you!) are comfortable with that to a greater or lesser extent. So, keep your head up (literally), look risk straight in the eye, and embrace it mindfully on your own terms.

Have a think about what you’re doing, or what you’re about to do. Have a think about the short- and long-term consequences – including potential consequences. Then make your informed call and go for it, whether that’s acting on your impulse, challenging it, or whatever course you feel is most appropriate.

Let’s bring it in …

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those classic movies of our time. Sure, it’s nearly 30 years old, but it still really resonates! Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne suggests that we should “get busy living, or get busy dying”, and he’s not far from the truth. So, what is it that you want from your life? To live, or to get busy dying? 

Yes, us too! So, it’s time to keep it real, to bring it in, or as the late Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society says: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” 

We hope that our words have encouraged you to think about being Safety Savvy, and given you some food for thought on living just a little bit longer too.

What you do next is your decision. Your boss, your company, your family, and your friends all want you to make the right choice. 

It’s time to ask yourself, are you Safety Savvy? 

* This series consists of edited extracts from Professor Andrew Sharman and Dr Tim Marsh’s book Safety Savvy. The final chapter is included in this issue.

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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