Ian F. Lewis FRSA – The Campaign for Adventure – RSA Risk Commission – 31st October, 2007

“Campaign for Adventure thanks the RSA Risk Commission for the excellent report ‘Risk and Childhood’. It moves us all some considerable way along this difficult road of taking the right risks and finding the best, if still risky, balance for our lives.

When Prince Philip called for a national campaign which promoted Adventure, Risk & Enterprise during an RGS conference in November, 2000, we were delighted to provide one.  Tony Blair gave his endorsement, and many, many institutions and individuals have since joined us. 

Our targets for the campaign back in 2000 were broad but well defined.  We sought to make positive the pervading negative media attitude to healthy risk taking, to lighten-up an oppressive health & safety culture, to support nervous and risk-averse managers in organisations, to help insecure educators feel confident they would be supported, and inform a seemingly unaware government that allowing British society to be un-enterprising and risk averse at a time of great opportunity made no sense.  These paths all lead to fear, mediocrity or insecurity, but we felt mainly mediocrity.

Our 2000 ‘Campaign Agenda’ messages stated:

            ‘Risk is not negative and it can be very positive; the ability to view risk in a balanced way should be cultivated throughout our society.’

‘Complete avoidance of risk is impossible; as a society and as individuals, we must learn to manage risk effectively.’

‘Important benefits stem from the right risks.’

‘An adventurous approach to life, in all its aspects, is a desirable trait for humanity if it seeks to thrive.’


Campaign for Adventure[CfA] was not a voice in a wilderness then, and is much less so now.  Interest in healthy risk-taking, enterprise, new experiences, exploration and adventure grows daily.


For CfA, Adventure, in all its aspects is a crucial statement. We are equally concerned with the taking of healthy risks in the realms of science, art, society, business & enterprise, spirit, exploration, sport – and many more areas – as we are in risks which only threaten life and limb.  We mention these few ‘aspects’ of being fully human, to indicate the breadth of healthy risk-taking opportunities that exist outside the purely physical.


Greatly increased opportunity exists for human kind where the broader reaches of human nature are approached through a healthy spirit of adventure. Sadly, the understanding of risk in 2000 was stifling: financial loss and bodily fear far too easily sprang to mind; whenever risk was mentioned, only danger and potential loss were concerns. 


Changing the 2000 morbid perception of risk towards one of healthy balance and good management is a long road, but much progress has been made, although there is a long way still to go.


This report, ‘Risk and Childhood’, does the right thing. It very helpfully mentions many aspects of healthy risk-taking, both positive and negative. As a society we need this balanced, broad-shouldered view to prevent over-protection and ensure our childrens’ exposure to the realities of our society. These experiences offer far more positive than negative learning opportunities.  We are already suffering from an extinction of experience.  Evidenced through a lack of basic common sense, simple but vital social skills and confidence do not develop and we are denied the basic comforts and trusts of society.


May we focus on education for a moment.  The world of a true educator is about ‘whole-person development’ and ‘realising full potential’, child, youth or adult.  Here we should include teachers, parents, peers and the many others who contribute to the life-long process of learning, and whether we wish to follow the path of mediocrity or the path of possibility.  It is a choice.


The two greatest blocks to learning are ‘fear of the unknown’ and ‘not knowing what we don’t know’.  These do not inhibit the learning process when experienced by the learner, but they do when experienced by the educator.


The concept of ‘Adventure Threshold’ helps here, Used by educators to indicate confidence in risk situations, here are two anecdotes.


One: Three weeks ago, a colleague preparing an executive development challenge on the Solent, sent a group to acquire ‘the makings’ for hot drinks to be consumed whilst aboard the yacht which they would crew for the blustery October day.  They returned from the shop with only cans of fizzy drink.  The group member responsible for H & S in the normal workplace had convinced the group that ‘hot water at sea is a hazard, and must be avoided, so no tea or coffee’.  No mention here of morale, enjoyment, adventure, habits of sailors over millennia. Even the very real need for frequent hot drinks in off-shore October seas was skipped.


Two: A teacher asks of her young class, ‘Draw a picture of anything you like.’. The class commences, teacher observes.  Teacher asks a particularly busy young lady, ‘What are you drawing?’. She replies, ‘I’m drawing God.’.  The teacher thinks a moment and then states, ‘But no one knows what God looks like.’ The child replied: ‘They will when I’ve finished!’


Both these anecdotes invoke issues of fantasy, intuition, imagination and belief, of courage, healthy-risk-taking, discovery, a spirit of adventure. The former describes a route to mediocrity through fear of the unknown, the latter a route to amazing possibility by embracing the unknown. We seek a balance, not mediocrity.


Offered here are three routes to mediocrity our society seems destined to follow in its avoidance of adventure, risk and enterprise.


Route One: The route of the average.

If one aims for average, one will probably achieve it.  If one aims higher, that is also the likely outcome.


Our education system seems to aim for a low average – or at least sets very low thresholds.  A consequence of ‘aiming for average’ seems to be a lowering of that average – a slippery slope to increasing mediocrity. To retain an average a sufficient proportion must aim higher and achieve above the average. Our learners fail not because over challenged, it is because they are not challenged enough. To extend this argument one might re-visit an increasingly visionary picture of then future of humanity in E. M. Forster’s classic short story, ‘The Machine Stops’. In 1898 Forster wrote of obesity, a disregard of the environment, drugs as a norm, fear of the unknown, a society couch-potatoed, centred on electronic screens, socially inspired low aspiration, social policing, etc, etc.


Route Two: Bestowing your own expectations on others…


We all have ideas about what we can do – formed from experience, advice, judgement and beliefs.   Do you know where your performance limits are on a scale from flat ground rising toward the vertical? You know your current comfort zone, of course;  But what of your possibilities? Here we go – who here is happy on a slope of 10 degrees, 20, 35, 50, 70, 80 degrees?  Picture 1: [female free climber] Through imagination, belief and experience of the possible this climber has probably exceeded what most even in this room, consider possible – she is into your fantasy zone, yet is still in her reality.


My reality – what is possible – was challenged earlier this year. [Picture 2: base-jumper] A new interpretation of ‘Airbed’; Some might think 40 winks would be a little extravagant in these circumstances. Route two, to mediocrity, then involves bestowing on others our own belief in possibility, safety and vision.


…..‘A pullover is something a child wears when a mother/teacher feels cold’:  What fantasy, belief, imagination, possibility does a child have constrained when teacher feels afraid or does not know?


We should extend experience for our teachers and ensure they feel secure in reaching out and touching the possible. Their confidence demands statements of reassurance – from courts, government, managers, that they will be supported in doing what they need to do to deliver the possible, the challenging and above the average.


A third route to mediocrity:


Bulgaria – v – the USA:  A social variation which we might own in Britain? In the US of A, ‘We must keep up with the Jones’ is oft-stated.  It is a free and achieving society; people feel positive about others’ achievements.  ‘Your doing great’; ‘You’re a success’; ‘He done good.’ Nice cars, nice job, nice house…  Bulgaria is a little different.  Here is an ancient world, of many overtaken civilizations, including Thrace, Roman, Greek.  A Bulgarian neighbour does not want a better or newer donkey; they want their neighbour’s donkey to go sick and die!  The origin of this [and its generality] is obscure, but I reflect on some statements of our significant others here in Britain – our teachers, parents, peers and the media: ‘You can’t do THAT!’; ’It won’t work!’; ‘Stop that, it is dangerous!’; ‘Stop it! No one has ever done that before.’ The message they do not communicate, but are feeling is “It has risks that are unacceptable to me, so you should not even try it: it could threaten my comfort-zone, even my reality…”


And so you have my three routes to our society’s mediocrity.


I started by thanking the RSA Risk Commission for this excellent report, and said it moves us some considerable way along this difficult road of taking the right risks.  I restate that: It makes an excellent contribution.  But I do hope I have moved some imaginations and beliefs – even fantasies, from stone to something more plastic and less routed towards humanity’s mediocrity.


Children really are amazing, let us let them take risks. Thank you