Archive for the 'Risk' Category


The 99 Percent Trap

2400895854_15d0bc0a61_mOver at Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder re-posted a book review by Kevin Kelly on The Deniers, a book that reviews the arguments of scientists who question global warming. This post comes a few weeks after a series of guest posts by Charles Platt that questioned the validity of global warming. As the days go by, the comments started to include attacks on the person versus the idea.

Global warming is a perfect example of the 99% Trap. I define the 99% Trap as our tendency too slip into attacking the person versus questioning the idea when we perceive ourselves to be right. In pursuit of that final 1%, it’s easy to grow frustrated. After all, how can someone question what 99% believes to be true?

Doing so might unintentionally limit our options. Consider the history of 1%ers (for the record, I have nothing against the Catholic church):

  • Galileo championed heliocentrism and ended up under house arrest during the Roman Inquisition because the Catholic church believed it contradicted the literal meaning of the scriptures and couldn’t be proven empirically.
  • Martin Luther stood up to the Catholic church and challenged it as the sole religious authority.
  • Abolitionists challenged a practice accepted by large portions of the world’s population, raising awareness and turning it into a actionable issue.
  • Suffragists fought for, and in many cases won, the right to vote regardless  of gender or race.

Each of the individuals or groups started out as the 1%, as the minority. Luckily for us, we now know our world circles the sun, more than one theology has a place in society, few place exist where slavery remains legal, and a significant portion of the world’s population has the right to vote.

Here’s where the danger lies. What happens if the 1% is in the wrong, sometimes dangerously so, but isn’t challenged? That’s what often drives the 99%. What do we risk if the 1% becomes 2%, 10%, or 25%?

Whether it’s frustration, fear, or something else, we sometimes give in to the temptation to stop questioning the ideas and go after the person. When we do so, our arguments immediately become suspect, at least to the people we’re trying to convince. We also risk losing the people leaning in the direction of the majority but who remain skeptical of certain points.

The 99% Trap can happen in almost any situation, whether it’s the boardroom or the bedroom, you have to choose to not slip up and turn the situation personal. The reality is that 100% consensus isn’t likely. If you’re responding to the arguments and not to the individual you won’t risk your position and may actually pull a few from the 1% in the process.

Image via Flickr, unloveablesteve.


All About the Money

2892058635_da341cba5f1My New Year’s Eve proved to be a restless evening compounded by a nasty head cold and a thought that kept swirling around my head. The ongoing talk surrounding money, and the things connected to it (e.g., jobs, homes, etc.), seems to have focused on money as the end versus the means. The thought I keep coming back to is when will we start talking about and focusing on doing or making something without money entering the conversation?

First, I must clarify that I recognize the necessity of money. For many, it’s the only tender that can be traded for things like food and shelter. My argument isn’t about money in a good versus evil sense, but rather how we allow it to define our lives.

Second, the value of money and the things we buy with it has proven to be a very flexible thing. People who believed their homes would finance a move into an even larger residence or even fund their retirement are facing mortgages now worth more than the value of their home. Investors have watched as their portfolios followed the downward market trends, leaving many to wonder how they’ll ever regain what they’ve lost.

Finally, I’m a believer of efficient markets and the underlying principles of capitalism, so I’m in the group that believes current circumstances will improve for the better. However, despite the potential for improvement, I still come back to my original conundrum: do we need to change how we think about money?

Money: For Better or For Worse

I like money. I like what it allows me to do and the experiences that it makes available to me. At times, I’ve allowed myself to be caught up in the idea that money was the desired goal rather than a vehicle for something more tangible. I believe that one of the reasons so many are upset about the current economic crisis is a fear of whether they can still do anything or produce something of value. Consider the focus we’ve placed on being able to replace and upgrade. If you believe there’s nothing about you that makes you impossible to replace that’s cause for fear.

In recent months, we’ve heard the phrase “too big to fail.” I wish that I’d heard more about people who were too valuable to lose. Our focus has been on the institutions and what they represent (often money) and not on the people who actually make things happen.

When the Detroit  automakers went to Washington, D.C., looking for financial assistance, more than one person called for a change in leadership of these companies. But I never did hear who should replace the CEOs of any of these companies or what the new leaders should do.

A cornerstone of President-elect Obama’s financial recovery package focuses on rebuilding America’s infrastructure. I’ll be curious to hear when the focus shifts to making sure there’s something worthwhile for all that infrastructure to connect. For example, what is Detroit without car manufacturing? Does any industry currently exist that could move in and support the city if the car manufacturers go away? What about the cities who rely on carbon energy production?

At some point, regardless of whether you believe the prophets of doom or the overly optimistic naysayers, we’ll pump and mine the Earth dry. And if something ceases to be available it doesn’t matter how much money you have at your disposal.

What Happens If We Stop?

If we stop creating, if we stop producing, we will find ourselves in a bind, particularly if we only chose to do so because of money. Yes, we need money to survive, but when do we cross the line from survival into servitude? I’m the first to admit that I like my creature comforts and that I like having enough money to fulfill those wants, but I also try to be wary of allowing it to drive my decision making.

Consider many of the corporate CEOs in recent history who were driven more by the pursuit of money than the production of something valuable. Enron, WorldCom, and Bear Stearns are just a few of the more egregious examples.  So where does that leave us now?

I believe our long-term success, and happiness for that matter, will be determined by our ability to make more than just money. Yes, money holds a powerful sway on society as a whole. We tend to admire and often idolize those who make large sums of it. But how would our perception of those people change if they suddenly didn’t have their huge sums of money? Would they, as individuals, still be worthy of our attention?

The Warren Buffett Lesson

I wonder often about why Warren Buffett has chosen to stay in his original home in Omaha, Nebraska. As the richest man in the world, he could live wherever he wanted in whatever type of home. His decision for staying fascinates me from the standpoint that we’re so often bombarded with the message that bigger translates into better.

On top of his housing selection, Buffett’s decision to donate to various charities 85% of his Berkshire Hathaway stock prior to his death also intrigues me. To me, his actions are an example of turning money into something tangible. The end goal doesn’t appear to be about making more money but rather about making lives better. Such actions may lead to the creation of more money, but the immediate goal is one of giving back to improve current circumstances.

Since the end of World War II, we’ve been a nation focused on consumption. I wonder when we’ll figure out that at some point, they’re won’t be anything left to consume if we don’t refocus our efforts on producing things of value.

Image courtesy of Steve Wampler.


Running from Instinct

Winter Moose

The other day, I looked up from my computer and saw this moose staring in my window. I’m not ashamed to admit I yelped in surprise. It’s not every day a moose wanders into my yard. My next instinct was to race for the camera.

Instincts are interesting things because they seem to happen with little explanation. You often don’t realize you’ve acted until after the impulse. Sometimes, if we’re prepared, we can fight our instincts, an option I believe we don’t always give due consideration.

One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, The Opposite, includes the best line: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

In the best case, your instincts will drive you forward, prompting you to make the decisions best suited for you. However, sometimes we mistake fear or uncertainty for instinct and let it determine our decisions. Then there’s the conflict that our instincts can create. C.S. Lewis said, “Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war… Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of the rest.” (link)

I suspect the successful people we admire the most are individuals who’ve figured out how to balance acting on instinct versus acting against instinct. However, their strength lies in recognizing which course best solves the problem. For every person that claims to only listen to his gut, there’s another who only acts after careful thought and planning. The trick for each of us lies in figuring out how to create that balance between the two. Guts and brains, separate from each other, can only accomplish so much. Put them together and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.



The Beauty of Chaos

The end of a year and the beginning of another brings out a predictable string of events: recaps of what happened in the previous year and predictions for what might happen in the next. Many recaps consist of “top 10” lists of the supposed best or worst of a particular subject. For all their popularity, most top 10 lists don’t last beyond the day of their publication. The thinking behind top 10 lists intrigues me though.

Butterfly EffectI propose that we’re drawn to top 10 lists because we want to create order out of chaos, particularly in our current world of information overload. However, there’s something to be said for chaos. From my perspective, chaos’ attractiveness lies in its unpredictability, the sense that anything, both good and bad, is possible. With that in mind, consider the butterfly effect, often mentioned in connection with chaos theory:

The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear (or prevent a tornado from appearing). The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.

I think that our current hunger for order in all the chaos for information cheats us out of what’s possible. A top 10 list and other filters that we pay attention to skip over the uncertainty of a butterfly flapping its wings and goes straight to someone else’s interpretation of the chaos. Why waste time wading through all the different thoughts if someone has been kind enough to provide you with the answers?

I’m not anti-organization. Rather, I’m anti-pigeon-holing. In our rush to create order from chaos, we sometimes take the easy path, relying on the tried and true (e.g. top 10 lists) because again, we’re drawn to known quantities. For this new year, I challenge you to challenge your filters. Why do you get your information from your chosen sources? Why do you trust who you trust? Maybe 2008 becomes the year that you wait to see whether the butterfly flaps its wings.


(Image courtesy of Gonçalo Pereira.)


Breaking the Rules at Least Once

Rule breakers are both the bane and highlight of life. The rule breakers can make life seem really unfair, especially when you’ve played by the rules and accepted the consequences. However, the rule breakers can also shake things up, making life better when they challenge status quo.

One of my favorite rule breakers, based on sheer audacity and a willingness to thumb his nose at authority, is King Henry VIII. He created his own church and installed himself at the head when the Catholic church wouldn’t let him break the rules. He actually justifies his decision by pointing out that Catholic clergy have split their loyalties between country and pope:

Well-beloved subjects, we thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects; yea, and scarce our subjects; for all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the Pope clean contrary to the oath that they make to us, so that they seem to be his subjects, and not ours. (link)

Ignoring for the moment his tendency to execute wives in his pursuit of a son (I’d love to have seen his reaction in the afterlife when he learned that was HIS fault), Henry did something bold by challenging the standing authority of the Catholic church.

Sometimes rules exist to protect the individual from harm. Other times rules exist to protect the status quo. The individuals who can see the difference between the two and act accordingly are the ones who’ll change the world. These rule breakers are the ones who execute when everyone else says it can’t be done or shouldn’t be done. I bet all the major networks wish they’d come up with YouTube. And I bet all the newspapers wish they’d come up with Craigslist.

But the status quo rule makers are too busy protecting aging turf to even contemplate how things might be better if they broke some of their own rules. Here’s the reality. Life tends to treat you better when you play fair (karma and all that good stuff). But don’t kid yourself that always playing by the rules is the only way to succeed, especially if the rules are set by groups benefiting from the status quo.

In pursuit of his own interests, Henry VIII sparked the English Reformation and changed the power structure in his country. Long after his death, the ripple effects spread out for centuries to come. The individuals and the companies that excite me the most understand that rules protecting status quo are just begging to be broken. And then they dare break them. I dare you to break the rules at least once. You might be surprised at the results.



Worth Taking the Risk

Life’s risky. But breathing isn’t enough for most people, so we add to the risk. We drive cars, we go on dates, we try a new restaurant. Risk makes life more exciting, more enjoyable, more worthwhile. Risk can also lead to amazing discoveries. Orville Wright points out that “If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.” (link)

He would know. In partnership with his brother Wilbur, the Wright brothers took one of the biggest risks in history. They dared to be bold, to be so different people thought they were crazy. Now, over 100 years ago, Boeing is putting the finishing touches on its 787 Dreamliner, and flying is an accepted part of everyday life.

The Wright brothers didn’t invent the idea of human flight. “The fact that the great scientist believed in flying machines was the one thing that encouraged us to begin our studies,” said Wilbur. (link) But they saw an opportunity and looked beyond the obvious. Many of history’s biggest risks are now accepted as commonplace, but at the time, were seen as ridiculous:

  • Exploration: The Vikings, the Chinese, Columbus, de Soto, Magellan…the search for new worlds held huge risk. Google Maps didn’t exist, so navigation relied on stars and luck that ships would hit land before supplies ran out.
  • Democracies: Common citizens couldn’t rule themselves, they needed kings, or so royalty thought. Going back to ancient Greece and Rome, countries like the U.S. found precedent for democratic government. Now, in theory anyway, citizens rule their nations.
  • Health care: Germs didn’t exist, a knife under the bed cut pain, and bleeding released “ill humors” and cured disease. Thanks to doctors like Pasteur, Lister, and Jenner and medical research, people are living well into there 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

Critics of risk takers still seem to outweigh those willing to make the leap. Josh Porter over on Bokardo highlights the ongoing argument about “amateurs” flooding the civilized world with nonsense. He points out:

What isn’t clear is how much better off we’ll be with so many people learning how to write. Maybe we will have citizen journalists that deliver news faster and more comprehensive than before. Maybe we’ll have better technology analysts who are specialists in their field and not just good generalists from the big newspapers.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll have one or two Michelangelos surface who make everyone forget how much kerfuffle was made about the Cult of the Amateur.

Daring to raise your voice is a risk. When I started this blog, I didn’t want to add more “noise” just because I could. So, I took a risk that at least one other person might be interested in what I have to say. I’ve been lucky…it looks like 50 or so are interested.


View Britt Raybould's profile on LinkedIn



July 2018
« Jun