Friday Mar 20 2009
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.