Fear and Risk

By Jim Selman | Bio


Our
relationship to risk and our fears is closely related. Most of our
lives we’ve made decisions based on some formal or informal process for
assessing ‘risk’. In our conventional way of thinking, this means
trying to predict what will or will not happen and with what
probabilities based on some scenario or course of action. It is a
‘forward looking’ posture and, as with all predictions, draws on
historical data or experience and projects it into the future. In other
words, we take our past, project it into the future and then make our
choices and commitments based on what our predictions (the past) tell
us will probably happen.

Anyone who is even mildly
paying attention can easily grasp that the predictions are wrong more
often than they are right. Particularly now, when the world is changing
around us so rapidly, we can no longer rely on this mode of
decision-making. At best, we maintain the status quo and, more often
than not, we are completely blindsided by something unexpected that
wasn’t taken into account when we were assessing risk and making our
decisions. We only have to look at the current economic mess to see the
consequences of believing our assumptions about the future.

Normally,
when attempting to analyze risk we consider that the future is
variable—it will get better or it will get worse. However, at least in
most personal and business equations, we fixate more on what can go
wrong than what the upside might be. In truth (as any gambler knows),
in any risk analysis there are almost always as many upsides as there
are downsides—only the probabilities vary. Likewise, this kind of
conventional thinking also considers “ourselves” to be constants. We
don’t change, only the circumstances change based on whatever story we
are telling.

It is more accurate to say that (since in any
scenario there is always an upside and a downside) we could win or we
could lose, we could live or we could die, we could succeed or we could
fail no matter what we do. If we make a decision, these
options would apply and if we don’t make a decision one can argue the
same could be the case. To paraphrase Ortega Y Gasset: “The most
compelling aspect of life is its immediacy, it is fired at us point
blank”.

All this means is that we can never really know or
control what will happen. It is just as accurate to say that the future
is constant—winning and losing are always equally possible even if not
equally probable based on the past—and that we are the variable. From
this perspective, the question isn’t how do I manage the risk, but given the risk, who am I—what will I commit to—and what do I need to do or learn to maximize the probabilities of success?

If
we approach the future and questions of risk in this manner, several
things occur naturally. First and foremost, we can give up our struggle
to get the ‘right’ predictions and hedging our commitments based on our
confidence in our analysis. Our commitments become the drivers for our
planning rather than our assessments of the environment. We are forced
to stay present in the moment and concentrate on our day-to-day
actions. And, finally, when we are stuck or need to confront unexpected
or unpleasant events, we are free to quickly respond and regenerate or
abandon strategies as appropriate in the circumstances.

To put
all of this in the context of our growing older, it suggests that we
rethink how we think about the future. We can put a lot less effort in
trying to either hold on to the good things in our life or avoid bad
things and live more fully in the moment. Rather than trying to hold
onto the past, we can proactively engage in creating the future.

The
downside of old age is pretty obvious and even a subject for stand-up
comics and cartoons—but what is the upside? The upside of growing older
is not a rationalization that there are compensations for what we lose,
but that there are possibilities not easily seen or experienced at
other times in our lives. The joys of “Eldering” and empowering others,
the opportunities to put our wisdom into action, and the satisfaction
of leaving the best of ourselves to our children and future generations
are priceless.

 

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

 

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