Hyperloop

Most of us, most often take the safer route, but we do it at a cost: “…our biggest regrets are not our actions but our inactions – the chances not taken.”

To explain the psychology of risk, I asked my college students yesterday to commit an hypothetical investment of $10,000, to either: an opportunity with a 5% probability of turning into $100,000, or one with an 80% chance of turning into $20,000. They could keep the difference, but had to give back the original $10,000.

10kThe choice I gave them was between a profoundly risky situation with a spectacular result, and one that carries a lot less risk but yields a less impressive return. If you flip it around and look at the risk side of the equation, they were weighing a 95% chance vs. a 20% chance of losing the initial $10,000.

In real life, we do this all the time. We choose between getting less than 1% interest on our savings with no risk to the principal and the possibility of earning five or ten times that annually in the stock market, the latter carrying the risk of losing our initial investment. We choose between taking the faster route to our destination on the interstate, with the likelihood (but not certainty on a busy weekend) we’ll get there faster, even knowing that taking the scenic route is more interesting and offers the chance of getting happily, temporarily lost. We choose a mate who might be easier to get along with over the firecracker who will drive us crazy (in both a good and bad way).

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One of my students astutely observed that it’s where you are in life that determines the value and the meaning of the reward, because it directly influences how much risk we’re willing to tolerate. When I said they’d have to put up their own money, everyone was solidly in the 80% risk camp, but the same smart kid suggested this was because they are students and $10,000 is a lot of money at this point in their lives…and noted further that investors with a lot of money probably don’t see the world the same way. When I changed the equation to the possibility of getting a million dollars out of an initial investment of $100,000, several students moved over from the classes’ prior, unanimous decision to take the lower risk option.

There’s endless advice out there about following “the road not taken,” but you’ve got to factor in this matter of where you are in your life. Most of us, most often take the safer route, but (as Frost suggests in the poem that originated the phrase) we do it at a cost. The “safe” savings account at the bank pays so little interest it actually loses money to inflation. The “safe” corporate career path runs into the brick wall of “downsizing.” The “safe” interstate route misses all the peculiar, amazing sights and people we’d encounter along the byways. The “safe” relationship gets pretty dull over time.

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As an inveterate glass-half-empty guy, I’d like to endorse another famous dictum, eloquently expressed by Adam Grant that “our biggest regrets are not our actions but our inactions – the chances not taken.” In other words, we are more likely to regret the harder/scarier things we did not try than the easier things we did. Previous generations, including I think boomers, bought into the idea of a traditional and linear progression: from high school to college to career, from infatuation to engagement to marriage to children, from your parent’s house to a crappy shared apartment to renting or buying your own place.

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Have a look at any given group of millenials: this no longer computes, the sequence is all over the place. Kids first marriage later, group hang outs instead of steady dates, renting or boomeranging back home instead of taking on a mortgage, building a career with a single employer to a half dozen jobs before age 30. I don’t know if this is about a fundamental shift in the culture or individual risk tolerance, but it is different. Ask a roomful of college business students who wants to start their own business and it’s most of them. Ask the same room who wants to pay their dues on the road to the success and personal satisfaction of owning that business and it’s virtually none of them. They don’t and won’t necessarily process this as risk tolerance so much as about impatience to achieve their birthright. But I’d suggest it has an awful lot to do with wanting to upend the traditional equation and separate risk from reward.

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Last Century

Elon Musk, the guy who used his gigantic windfall from PayPal to start Tesla and Space-X and is now pursuing the possibly crazy concept of hyperloop transportation, is at the extreme end of the risk-taking spectrum. He’s the ultimate entrepreneur, willing – no compelled – to risk it all because of the absolute surety that he can accomplish anything by force of will.

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This Century

Most of us live at the quieter end of the spectrum, where we have a certain tolerance for taking chances, but once we’ve achieve security in our finances or career or relationships, prefer if given the choice to remain on the same path. I know a guy who turned down a job offer that carried a $30,000 increase in salary for reasons known only to him, but which I suspect had to do with the perceived risk of stepping outside the familiar.

I’m the last one to think you can do much about human nature in general, or about personal predisposition in particular. We are what we are, and change, if it occurs tends to be evolutionary rather than sudden. Most of the time I’m a lot less intense than I used to be, but push the right button and I’m rapidly, if less persistently the same impatient guy who demands destiny bends to his will rather than the other way around.

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I used to be a change junkie, and while change continues to stimulate my synapses, I’m troubled about a creeping resistance that is actually a reversion to childhood form. I like new experiences but have to overcome the hump – for example, I’ve wanted to travel “down under” for a long time but tempered the impulse by thinking about 22+ hours on a plane, even if it is decorated with koala bears. I hate the occasional squabbles of any long-term relationship but know the true center from my underlying feelings and understand that I need to be with someone wicked smart and challenging.

So what and where is the right balance? There’s no generalizable answer, but I know this and return to it as an axiom to live by: I once knew a smart and accomplished woman who lived well, traveled the world, stepped into and ran a business with no formal training, and had in her forties a succession of successful and interesting suitors. Whatever it was, maybe just too much angst, maybe that encroaching resistance to change, maybe just a desire for some domestic calm, she ultimately remarried, to someone whose inability to deal with the world ultimately reduced her world to four walls of an apartment. It cost her everything to accommodate him, and while it affected other people that was her choice to make. But to my mind it was a bad one and it is my reference point when I feel I’m becoming too still to do something.   There’s no perfect balance point for risk and reward, but we probably all have a variety of object lessons in what not to do. Those lessons have provided me with a roadmap, and it’s served me pretty well in having the kind of life I wanted.

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Baubles and Panniers  

We lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it.

 

We celebrated our 10th anniversary this summer (I’ve actually been married 35 years, just not continuously). There were gifts – a set of motorcycle saddlebags for me, a tourmaline, diamond and sapphire ring for my wife – but the best gift we gave and got was a day of just being with each other. I’m not sure why it took a big anniversary to make that happen, but something about the day made us forget to have any expectations other than just enjoying each other’s company and the casual ease of a lengthening marriage.

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I commented on this to my wife on the way home from our anniversary night out, and woke the next morning feeling a need to really take stock. I’ve mentioned Brian Andreas’s Story People before in this column. His offering this morning, a paean to someone he loves called Favorite Places, is a good jumping off place: “I’m not that good at being a tourist because I’m always looking at the way the light shines in your hair or the way your dress opens to the wind & my favorite places in the world are places filled with you.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but my experiences of my own and others’ relationships suggests that we lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it. I acted in a play this summer called The Dinner Party, a lesser-known Neil Simon show about three divorced couples forced back together at a party under false pretenses.  Near the end, after a complex struggle of emotions, I said “…some of us will take a second look at ourselves, what we had and what we lost…and some may make a decision which would have seemed inconceivable before we arrived here tonight.”  My character goes on to describe the nicest thing his ex-spouse ever did in their marriage, as accepting and loving him for who he was.

What else does any of us need than looking at the person you spend your life with and knowing, despite all the crap you inevitably toss at each other, that this is the person who totally floats your boat?

Carole Lombard & Gary Cooper, 1930

On our tenth anniversary, we each posted a favorite picture on social media from the first 24 hours of our marriage. My wife chose one of our wedding dance and I picked the one of us relaxing at a B&B the morning after (above). We compared the number of “likes” and comments on each other’s feeds several times over the following days, but it was the kind of competition that was mutually enjoyed. (Unlike the Parcheesi game a couple of years ago – yes Parcheesi – that had a friend vowing never to play a game with the us again, and could easily have devolved into an emotional restraining order.)

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“BLOODSPORT”

Neither of us looks quite the same as we did ten years ago, but any disappointment I feel looking at those photos has more to do with my own self image than the way I feel about my wife…”the way the light shines in [her] hair or the way your dress opens to the wind.”

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I don’t feel that way about anyone else. I was single for five years between marriages, and infatuated on more than one occasion. Who doesn’t love the electricity of romantic attraction? But the fireball that hit me (and by her report my wife) at our first touch 15 years ago has never and will never come close to being replicated with anyone else. Aging is partly about changes in skin tone and hair color and fluidity of motion, but it’s also about looking at someone asleep next to you with one of those expressions that happens only when we’re asleep, and knowing you’re in the right place. Because if we’re really lucky, and maybe a bit smart, the passage of time enables us to slow things down in a way that enhances the moments. I’m the last person who should be criticizing anyone for rushing through life, given my dispositional impatience, but I really am getting better.

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FIREBALL!

My wife and I are and will always be on different sleep schedules. I wake up hours earlier, she needs a lot more sleep than I do, and there’s no stirring her once she’s out. She once slept, literally, through an Alaskan earthquake.  (We weren’t married at the time, but I don’t doubt the story for an instant.)  It’s sometimes frustrating, because I like the soft-focus scene in lots of movies and tv shows where the couple luxuriates in bed in the morning reading the newspaper and doing other stuff. But oddly enough, I woke up this morning, and find myself more often than not doing the same these days, completely unfazed by spending the morning “on my own,” watering and feeding the dogs, having a bowl of cereal, and sitting down to write. This isn’t ideal for me, but it’s not wrong either, and it’s certainly not a reason to ruin anyone’s day. It just is.

Past is prologue. There’s no changing who we were, what we did, or how we muddled through life’s challenges. But really, maybe it’s all setting the stage for now. I might trade lots of things to be younger, or have more energy or the ambition I once did  – and I might do almost anything if I could have more of my hair back. But the thing that always eluded me, and maybe, just maybe is becoming less elusive now, is this increasingly self-evident feeling of contentment. Sure, there are things I’d like to happen, grandchildren for example being on top of both our lists right now. We’d spoil them mercilessly.

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(Actress representation)

But really, what’s better than having bought my wife a ring this summer to recognize an important milestone, to be getting ready to go attach those panniers to my bike, to be looking past the top of my laptop at the sun on the harbor, and to be waiting to say good morning to my sleeping beauty?