To make a change is to take a risk. When we cannot predict the future, how it can be otherwise? All our choices and decisions have an element of risk, which we claim to feel encouraged to minimise or see ourselves as adverse. Despite this, we continue to produce evidence to the contrary. Every year, huge numbers of us change jobs, move house, emigrate, and start (or leave) families. For a species that doesn’t like change, we seem strangely addicted to it.
But our decisions still remain, to varying degrees, a punt. So how can we increase our chances of making the headlines rather than a guest appearance in The Sidebar of Shame? The first thing to accept is that we cannot control everything: life has more moving parts than a Swiss watch, and its engineering is considerably inferior. This doesn’t mean that we have to accept whatever may happen to us, but it does mean accepting that it might. And reminding ourselves that some accidents, at least, are happy ones. To misquote Peter Mandelson, we need to be intensely relaxed about people being incredibly lucky. Or at least luckier than we feel ourselves to be.
We can, however, deny ourselves the chance to be lucky. If we allow ourselves to become too attached to our Comfort Zone, we may eventually realise that there is a flipside to the cliché “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Even if we don’t constantly compare ourselves with others, we do lose something if we venture nothing: opportunity. More specifically, the opportunity for improvement.
While we are approaching our decisions, we might attempt to be sensible. We draw up lists of the pros and cons to help us weigh their respective merits. One concept we’ve acquired from politics recently is the existence of ‘red lines’: things we won’t countenance, or limits beyond which we will not proceed. These are sensible, as long as they are sensibly drawn: fixed points and immovable objects provide a sense of certainty in what can feel like a sea of flux.
But we should give as much thought to our decision-making criteria as we do to our decisions. In the heat – or chill – of recent disappointment, we often overreact emotionally: three failed job applications, for example, do not mean that we are doomed to our fate, but simply that we didn’t get three particular jobs. If we decide to stop applying, we are guaranteeing that we will never get our dream job when we could invest our time and energy into making better applications, or gaining the experience or qualifications that will support them. Saying ‘no’ is to close down an option that we might regret.
Our decisions are, of course, ultimately personal: other people can’t make them for us. (They can make decisions about us, and it might help come to terms with their impact if we remember that these decisions were also personal.) But our checklists are only as helpful as the criteria they contain, and the mindset in which we draw them up.
One factor is often overlooked: fear of short-term failure. Human beings may have invented the timepiece and developed the disciplines of geology, but our tendency to focus on the immediate is often a handicap. When we see the phrase ‘short-term failure’, we often give more attention to the second word than the first. The short-term is something that will not only pass, but do so relatively soon: it is the long-run that matters more. (Ultimately, all things must pass – ourselves included.)
Avid music fans are probably familiar with the encyclopaedic box sets of out-takes and demo versions that tend to appear after an artist’s death. While this is frequently a sign of the deceased’s legacy being mercilessly milked for every last drop of revenue, they are also evidence of something else: that the legend in question took numerous false turns as they worked on their masterpieces. In the short-term they made mistakes and produced sub-standard work; in the longer-term, they made better decisions and moved on, aware that money, staff and knowledge are not our only scarce resources. Time and energy are finite too. And sometimes the thing you need to take a chance on is you.
To find out more about the role of risk in decision-making, come to our Breakfast Event on Friday October 7th 2016 and listen to the insights of Caspar Berry, businessman, motivational speaker and professional poker player as he explains why every decision is an investment decision.