Does obsession with risk make us fragile?

image: NY times

Today is winter solstice. The shortest day, and the point at which we set out on the road to Spring. Right now, Saturn and Jupiter are aligning in the south west sky in the closest alignment in eight hundred years, and in the same way that many think is what gave us the Bethlehem Star. Climate change isn’t stopping. Covid-19 is a temporary side show. There’s a lot going on.

We have evolved from ancestors for whom risk was a natural daily companion, from the beast in the bushes to the risk of getting caught out in harsh conditions to disease. We have found ways to mitigate many of these – but have we taken them too far? Are we too easily frightened?

Perhaps we have become so used to eliminating risk that we find ourselves incapable of responding effectively when we encounter it, as though somehow it’s somehow unfair and unreasonable. That someone or something must be to blame, and our reaction has become to call a lawyer.

Anybody who has done a work risk assessment knows how this works. We identify risks and assign them scores on potential severity, and likelihood. In so doing however, we make those risks real – having thought of them, we cannot unthink them. Boogeymen. Whereas for our ancestors risk was something to be dealt with in action, we have become people who expect to deal with it in anticipation.

In businesses where risk is seen as a uniformly bad thing, and to be avoided at all costs we are in danger of becoming timid, and perhaps as bad, fragile. An ability to deal with the unexpected as a matter of course is a feature of those individuals and businesses for whon exploration and uncertainty is not just accepted, but sought. It’s where the new comes from, and where serendipity lives.

Four hundred years ago today the Pilgrim Fathers came ashore at Plymouth Bay, and one hundred and seventy six years ago the Rochdale Pioneers set up their first shop and started the Co-operative movement. Fifty one years ago the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon assisted by less computing power than a calculator. I’d love to have seen their risk assessments.

The work of Artisans can be identified by the mistakes they made as they pushed their boundaries in search of their best work. Industrial items can be identified by their unambitious perfection.

We sit on a risk spectrum. At one end, ignore it, and there’s a good chance we may perish. At the other end we find ourselves frightened of it, unwilling to move forward, and fragile. We can regard anything that stops us doing what we want to do as a huge problem (and somebody’s fault) as though our world is some sort complicated machine that has gone wrong. That attitude not just saps our resilience and stokes our sense of unfairness, it leaves us paying attention to whomever wants to spout negativity and blame. It demeans us.

Right now, things seem difficult, and in relative terms they are – but the things we are citing as examples of potential disaster would have made our forbears laugh out loud. We suffer from “shifting baselines” – we are remarkably myopic when it comes to comparisons and only work within the spans of our own lived experience and even for the oldest of us, that’s not very long in the scheme of things.

The Pilgrim Fathers gave us America, and the foundations of the spirit of Apollo 11. The Rochdale Pioneers gave us a basis for actionable paths to a form of social justice. They improved our lives through their own courage and sacrifice. We would perhaps do well right now to put as much effort into what we are learning and what we have the opportunity to build as we are into focusing on what we are losing.

What we are going through hurts, but it is telling us something. There are important things to do. We need to really listen.

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