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).

risk-reward

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.

resistance-to-change

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.

excel-roadmap

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?

Aubade

It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  

au·bade
ōˈbäd
noun
  1. a poem or piece of music appropriate to the dawn or early morning.  (In the middle ages it referred to lovers needing to part with the dawn.)
    Strolling to the shore

It occurs to me how far we all come in life.  I came across this poem by Philip Larkin, one of the great depressive geniuses I studied in college oh, about a million  years ago.  It seems at once relevant and a bit shocking, the kind of thing a young person would study without any particular grasp, or at least not a visceral one, of what is really going on in the author’s head (and heart).  Here’s an excerpt (I redacted the really awful bits, since it’s a rumination on death, but you can look it up here).

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain-edges will grow light…

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

—The good not done, the love not given, time

Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true…

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

From this perspective, and not the one I had when I first came across this 40 years ago, I can’t help thinking of this is a call to action rather than an admonishment to acceptance.  What particularly resonates with me is not the idea that the world goes on per se, but the more important one in terms of transitions that a lot of the stuff I (we?) used to worry so much about is pretty irrelevant.  “…telephones crouch, getting ready to ring / In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring / Intricate rented world begins to rouse.”

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It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  Think about the following passage from a quite different author, someone who is probably unknown compared to Philip Larkin, writing about the simple wonder of a day from the perspective of a pet:

Crystal Ward Kent

When you bring a pet into your life, you begin a journey – a journey that will bring you more love and devotion than you have ever known, yet also test your strength and courage.

If you allow, the journey will teach you many things, about life, about yourself, and most of all, about love. You will come away changed forever, for one soul cannot touch another without leaving its mark.

Along the way, you will learn much about savoring life’s simple pleasures – jumping in leaves, snoozing in the sun, the joys of puddles, and even the satisfaction of a good scratch behind the ears.

If you spend much time outside, you will be taught how to truly experience every element, for no rock, leaf, or log will go unexamined, no rustling bush will be overlooked, and even the very air will be inhaled, pondered, and noted as being full of valuable information. Your pace may be slower – except when heading home to the food dish – but you will become a better naturalist, having been taught by an expert in the field.

Too many times we hike on automatic pilot, our goal being to complete the trail rather than enjoy the journey. We miss the details – the colorful mushrooms on the rotting log, the honeycomb in the old maple snag, the hawk feather caught on a twig. Once we walk as a dog does, we discover a whole new world. We stop; we browse the landscape, we kick over leaves, peek in tree holes, look up, down, all around. And we learn what any dog knows: that nature has created a marvelously complex world that is full of surprises, that each cycle of the seasons bring ever changing wonders, each day an essence all its own.

You will find yourself watching summer insects collecting on a screen, or noting the flick and flash of fireflies through the dark. You will stop to observe the swirling dance of windblown leaves, or sniff the air after a rain. It does not matter that there is no objective in this; the point is in the doing, in not letting life’s most important details slip by.

dog-sniffing-flowers2In it’s simplest form, this isn’t a novel sentiment; we’ve all heard the expression “take time to smell the roses.”  But it’s really more than that, something that is ageless, timeless and offers possibility in a way that we too often take for granted.  For me, it ratifies the conversation I had with a good friend last night, about moving past the urge to be what I was before, to run things the way I did as a CEO, and perhaps a way of subverting or at least taming the sense of annoyance that surges to the surface whenever something isn’t the way I want it.

I did a google search on aubade as I was writing this.  It’s apparently a sexy French lingerie company.  Who would have thought?  Take that, Philip Larkin.

It’s all good.

Lack of Disinterest

There are paths, they’re just different. Smaller. Ones that lead to quieter places instead of ambitious leaps. And maybe we build up to something bigger again.

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I woke up a little while ago, let the dogs out for their morning potty run, and sat down at the laptop to write. Not sure what I’m going to do today, but this is a start. It’s also the second entry of the morning, so I’m on a bit of a roll.

I just stumbled across an article in Psychology Today, home of BS psychobabble, that describes anhedonia. It’s a term I’d not previously heard of, a depressive-like state that “comes not from a reduced capacity to experience pleasure, but instead from an inability to sustain good feelings over time…maybe pleasure is experienced fully, but only briefly.” I like this better than depression, a nasty catch-all label if there ever was one, and one that ignores most people’s ability to experience at least transient pleasure even in the throes of chronic and refractory moodiness.

As I googled for related articles, I came across this idea: “…my hobbies and interests are sleeping under my skin.” It’s one of those aha phrases, the ones that are at once succinct and (just maybe) profound. I don’t want to believe that being over 60 means we’ve lost the desire to do stuff we’ve always like to do, but rather that the paths we used to follow have gone from a bit overgrown and hard to follow, to so full of brambles and fallen tree trunks that they’re impossible to navigate anymore.

brambles

Self-help for seniors suggests there are so many cool other paths to follow, if we just open ourselves up to them. Things like gardening. And starting a lifestyle company. Or giving back by mentoring the younger generation with advice they rightly put into the category of obsolete. How about putting on a blue vest and greeting people at Wal-Mart? Okay, that last one was a bit snarky, but it leads to my next point.

Which is this: Just because traditional paths to gratification are limited or closed, doesn’t mean we suddenly become capable of taking the new ones. People with social anxiety don’t acquire gregariousness because they need something new to do. People reticent to try new things don’t become adventurous because they’re too bored to live in stasis. People who worked for someone else, being told what to do throughout their working lives don’t suddenly become entrepreneurs because they have become otherwise unemployable.

My wife reminded me the other day of an experience that seems apropos. We were hiking to Delicate Arch in Utah a number of years ago. It wasn’t a particularly challenging hike, and we paced ourselves and reached the top of the trail in due course. Off to the right from the path we took was the arch itself, maybe a couple hundred yards away across a natural bowl in the sandstone. The natural bowl, which was hundreds of feet across and on a gentle slope, ultimately fell off to a thousand-foot precipice. My wife, who has no problem piloting a small plane but doesn’t like other kinds of heights, nevertheless bounded across to the arch itself. I, on the other hand, who generally have no issue with heights per se but have a very big issue with edges into the abyss, literally cowered behind a boulder. I.could.not.help.myself.

Delicate arch bowl

There’s a song by the Drive by Truckers I like, called “I used to be a Cop.” Well, I used to be a CEO. Nominally, I still am, but it’s as the head of a small lifestyle company, not the big consultancy I once ran that I built from scratch. I know how to be a CEO, I like it, but I’m not much of a mind to build the company out that much. Well, I am intermittently, but not on a daily basis. That’s over; I just don’t care enough to work that hard anymore. But I do like to think, and to make things happen, and I don’t like working for anyone else after much of a lifetime working for myself.

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I’ve compartmentalized this in order to do thinks like teach and run a program helping new startup companies, both inside a university.  I don’t have to pay much attention under these circumstances to bureaucratic nonsense, other than go through the necessary motions. I’ve had a good career, I’m comfortable in semi-retirement, and most of all I’m not dependent on their money so I don’t have to put up with anyone’s bullsh-t.

So there’s the push-me-pull-you of this part of my life. I want the CEO-ness and I know how but I don’t want the burden of it. I want to do something with my in-the-trenches knowledge of business, but many of the students I’m charged with teaching aren’t very good at learning. And I don’t want to work for anyone, because I’m too much of a control junkie to follow any directions that don’t make sense to me. (Not that this is a particular problem given rampant age-discrimination that ultimately puts everybody except the self-employed out to pasture.)

In other words, a lot of us are faced with a bunch of overgrown paths that used to be clear and tangle-free. So we tease in our minds other ones. I clicked on a link in Facebook yesterday that took me to the lifestyle in New Zealand. I saw an ad for St. Jude’s Research Hospital that made me want to help children with cancer. I wrote a manifesto for a new political party out of desperation for the direction our hopeless, inane government is taking us – that is, over that precipice I talked about earlier. And I ultimately landed on the baby step of writing this blog. It’s not big like I’m used to. But it does enable me to express myself, and maybe it draws in and creates a conversation around shared experience, and it gives me an outlet for writing (pending the emergence of that novel I’ve been saying I want to write since college).

Big - Tom Hanks

There are paths, they’re just different. Smaller. Ones that lead to quieter places instead of ambitious leaps. And maybe we build up to something bigger again.  Or not. I’m coming around to the idea that it’s all good.