Truly Assessing Risk

Feb 24, 2023

A couple of years ago, a local Air Force Base hosted an air show. Our friends-- big aviation fans-- invited us to attend as their guests. Throughout the four-hour event, we witnessed fighter jets flying overhead in close proximity to one another, vintage WWII planes taking off and being cheered on by veterans, and countless other impressive loops and tricks in the sky. Each performance was impressive.

But I have to admit, air shows scare me.

I've seen too many YouTube videos of unanticipated crashes and near-misses with thousand of spectators below. Needless to say, I was feeling some low-grade anxiety all day as each plane went up, and then as each safely came down to land.

It wasn't until the final event of the day when I really felt my stomach in knots. The PA system clicked on to announce the last performer: Carol Pilon, professional Wingwalker. 

Wingwalker? I had never heard this phrase before. 

My friend said, "This is the coolest thing. Just wait!"

Within a few seconds, a shiny red biplane approached the runway. There was a man and a woman in the cockpit. The man was the pilot. The plane began to speed up and take off.

The woman, Carol Pilon, was the wingwalker. In one moment, I saw her seated in the plane. A few seconds later, in the sky above our heads, we watched her start to climb out of the cockpit, and step onto the wing. Then she walked a few steps and waved to all of us below!

Wingwalker. Quite literally.

She first stood on the bottom wing of the plane, then moved to the upper wing. ("Why in the world would someone stand on the outside of a plane in flight?" was my first question. That was immediately followed by, "And why would she give up a two-hand grip to wave to the crowd below?") These were rhetorical questions because there she was, a woman with no safety gear, standing on the top of a plane as it flew by the entire cheering crowd, made a U-turn, and then flew by us again.

I was freaking out.

Until the plane landed, and I could see Carol's two feet on the ground, was I finally able to breathe normally.

Of all the things we saw that day-- the planes, the pilots, the trained professionals-- Carol the Wingwalker was the person I haven't been able to stop thinking about. Her resume is impressive. She's been a professional wingwalker since 2000. According to her website: 

Carol has performed with no less than seventeen different pilots, ten of which she helped accredit on five different types of aircraft. She also mentored a team in Austria, teaching lower wing work and actual walking. She has helped set new wingwalkers on their path and assisted pilots in obtaining competencies.  She has walked on the most powerful aircraft, a Jetwaco with 3000 horsepower to the one with the least, a Quicksilver Ultra Light at 45 horsepower.

Shortly after that airshow, I was back at work one afternoon pondering my career choice. I have always considered myself a risk-taker. In 1996, I had quit my salaried corporate job to become a 100% commission, no salary, financial advisor. Back then, I knew little about the financial services industry. I think any reasonable person would have considered my career choice risky.

On that afternoon in my office a few weeks following the air show-- with photos of Carol Pilon's wingwalking performance now framed and hanging on the wall behind me--  I reflected on my original risk assessment from 1996. That's when I suddenly found myself laughing out loud. Risky? Being a financial advisor? Really? What about the career choice to be a wingwalker? At least my feet are on the ground all day long. I'm safe, indoors, and in control of my surroundings. Sure, an occasional client might cancel their meeting with me, or choose not to take my advice, but my life is never in danger. 

As you think about your career, and you get worried about how risky it is to be self-employed, or how nervous you are before you present a complicated financial plan to a business owner, think about being a wingwalker instead. Imagine your joint work partner isn't the guy in the office down the hall... What if your joint work partner was the pilot flying the plane you are standing on top of, or dangling off the side of, waving to your fans below. 

In comparison, our work seems pretty tame. Safe. Dare I even say, secure?

If we were truly assessing risk, it turns out our work as financial advisors isn't that risky or dangerous at all in comparison to so many other choices we could have made.

When you start to feel insecure-- even scared-- about the level of responsibility you have in your work, and the risk associated with the advice you give, the market we are in, unpredictable inflation we are experiencing, and so much short-term volatility, it's still hard to compare any day of ours to a day in the life of Carol Pilon and her daredevil colleagues. 

When I consider other options I could have picked for a job (firefighter, military sharp shooter, peace negotiator, brain surgeon, air show wingwalker), I can say with confidence and conviction that I feel safe and secure right where I am. 

Next time you're nervous about that big presentation on Tuesday, or sitting for the CFP exam next month, remember that at least your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Suddenly our day jobs don't feel so scary anymore, do they?

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