Archive for April, 2015

Risk of Patience


How risk averse are you? It’s in our DNA, actually. While we each are more or less prone to take risks in certain domains relative to others, there is a generally higher appreciation for adventure in some overall. Sometimes we look on from the sidelines, wishing we could muster that, while other times we appreciate the comfort of relative safety. Time is the element that changes us.

I don’t know how many times I’ve sat behind someone at a busy intersection watching their decision making from my perspective. Plenty of gaps in traffic sufficient enough to merge or get across go by, but they sit…and wait…for what seems like the perfect opportunity. Sometimes they get it, and the decision is easy. Other times their patience eventually wears down and the willingness to risk more or be more aggressive rises. I’ve seen people make dangerous moves when a moment before a much easier one was available.

There are few things in life with so little risk that they are no-brainers, and yet we often wait…as if that perfect moment (or the answer) will reveal itself to us. At intersections at least, our willingness to take risk is tied to a combination of our patience and mood. Watching how novices manage stocks or play at the casino is another interesting exercise.

In many situations the actual risk is calculable. It may be changing, but often those changes aren’t so complex that it can’t be approximately worked out in real-time (like the intersection). As time passes without (the desired) results we become willing to risk more. As our situation improves we become more patient. Even when the waiting had nothing to do with the improvement we may simply asses that there is more to lose. The key is in how we weigh the trajectory. If our situation worsens, do we believe it will continue to get worse at the same rate? As the traffic builds at that intersection we know it will subside again soon (barring some other mitigating factor such as a shift ending at a nearby factory or something), but once our willingness to wait is exhausted, aggressiveness takes over.

Here’s another thought. Rationalization. When we’re young we’re generally more willing to take risks. Overall most of those risks work out well enough, even if not exactly how we envisioned them. Gradually we stop taking them, and pretty much stand pat. We have too much at stake now to risk it. We concede to time and the idea of “good enough.” But how much more risky is it really to tackle something with all of the wisdom you can bring to it at an older age than it was when you were a naïve kid? We look too much at what there is to lose, and the fear gets us. It’s like turning around at that intersection and going back home to watch TV.

Time erodes our position. Whatever it is you want to do or become, there is now less time to do, or to enjoy the fruits of it, than a moment ago. The risk in doing it may have increased, but waiting more also increases the stakes. Can we learn to see the truth of this such that we forgo the idea of the ideal moment and just get on with it?

Empathy is Better than Sympathy

steiner-prag_0Sympathy is acknowledging another person’s feelings. “I am sorry for your loss” means you understand the other person is grieving and want to recognize that fact.

Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and relate to how the person feels, at least in part because you’ve experienced those feelings yourself.

Understanding and knowing (or at least truly relating to the feelings) are two different things.

Empathy connects us to others. It requires an ability and willingness to take the perspective of another person, which begins by recognizing that their perspective is their truth. It requires us to stay out of judgement. And it requires we recognize emotion in other people and then communicate accordingly. All easier said than done.

Sympathy is disconnecting, or more passive. “I’m sorry, I know it sucks for you, but…” The “but” is often implied, whether or not it’s actually spoken. It’s a hallmark of sympathy. It could mean anything from, “I don’t really care that much” to, “At least [fill in the blank with some proposed silver lining].”

Empathy is the vulnerable choice because it requires us to connect with something in ourselves that knows that feeling. It’s not comfortable (understatement). It’s you being willing to walk down the steps of that dark and foreboding stairwell to truly meet the other person where he or she is.

Sympathy tries to make things bearable. It can be dismissive, or it sometimes looks for a solution. Anything to get away from dealing with the difficulty or pain. It takes courage to sit with it and be in the weirdness without feeling the need to somehow dismiss it or even rationalize it. It simply is what it is, and it sucks, and there may be nothing to say. Often times it is better to say little to nothing.

It can be hard for us to know what to do to best help others (hint – the answer is sometimes nothing but be present). It can be hard to know how to act, but when we are the one who is struggling it’s usually pretty easy to sort the difference between sympathy and empathy. It matters to us greatly at those times, and we usually remember.


No Win Scenario

Politics in Indiana have had a spotlight shone on them recently.

As polarizing issues arise, most businesses appear to be quiet, hoping they will go away. There is no upside or way to win from a purely business perspective. Someone on one side or the other will not be satisfied, and if no side is taken, then the people closer to the fringes of either side will be unhappy. So it doesn’t usually matter what you believe, or what you do, you’re going to lose some revenue. If revenue is a major concern the best action is to do and say as little as possible. It seems cowardly on the surface, especially to those who are passionate.

Some people feel compelled to use whatever small amount of power they may have to influence things. It’s accepted that customers may take their business away from an organization if they don’t feel the organization is acting correctly, and an organization that happens to reside in an affected area may be deemed to be guilty by association. What I have observed recently is a sort of misguided bullying. While it may sometimes be true that laying low is taking an easier way out, it is also true that expecting a company to take a unified stand one way or the other isn’t logical if they have dozens or hundreds of employees. Those individuals invariably will have a rainbow of differing perspectives on and understandings of controversial issues. How is a company really supposed to speak for all of its employees accurately when it comes to personal choices? A CEO or company owner may speak about his/her personal stance, but it’s difficult to do that without forcing everyone in the company to become associated with that opinion. It could be considered more considerate to stay quiet on the matter.

As individuals demand that a stand be taken, the individual employees of a company can begin to feel victimized. It’s almost like a mild form of terrorism, especially if the threats are taken to extremes. I totally get that people with strongly held opinions, and little actual power, feel they must vote with their wallets, and obviously it doesn’t do a lot of good unless you let an organization know about it, but once you’ve made your move based on your principles then you can stop and let them stand. To continue to outrage against an organization that has nothing to do with what you’re mad about betrays you as someone who isn’t rational and cares about all people (regardless of whether that’s your claim). At the point where it becomes spiteful and mean, you have gone too far.


Deep Cuts

They sometimes don’t bleed right away, but once they do the severity begins to reveal itself. “Deep” implies more damage that’s harder to repair. Harder to even get to for repair.

cutupface“Better get that looked at.”

Sometimes the best person to look at it is the one who inflicted the cut. That’s not such a horrible thing so long as there is enough care to see to it. That person knows the nature of the damage. Presumably knows the one who is damaged, and is thus in a unique position to help.

The first question is, how much do you care? The second one is, which actions pour salt in…or alcohol? What will truly mend?

It’s remarkable how much easier it can be to do things than to undo them.

Free Will is Fake

…but it’s okay. The illusion is very complete, very compelling and for all intents and purposes every bit as good as the real thing.
We are, for want of a better description, engines that make decisions. So it’s not surprising we take responsibility for those decisions. This ownership over our own actions creates the illusion of free will. It’s a satisfying illusion. But all our choices, deeds and actions are the result of some prior causes: Memories, genetic-predispositions, character defects, accidents, lusts, goals, momentary neurochemical flickerings or just random quantum interactions. In other words, just atoms doing physics. No will. No freedom.

And all those causes, they too had had prior causes.

If we were an omniscient observer staring into a person, we could watch every one of these golden strands of causality and trace them back in time to see it is all connected to something else. Alas, we have no such powers. The mind/brain is a black box to us. It’s workings obscured. And so we have to satisfy ourselves that the origin of an action was somewhere within that grey meat-computer. Having done that, we can assign blame.

Pity the poor omniscient observer. He can see the cause of everything, and so is obliged to see every action as blameless and inevitable. People may assume this is based on determinism, or brain function or something else.

It’s simpler than that.

In this universe, and pretty much every universe we can imagine, there are only two possible types of event.

•  Caused events – things that happen because earlier things happened.
•  Uncaused events – thing that happened without any prior cause.

For the sake of this we can consider thoughts and decisions to be events like anything else. Including the choice of a roast beef or turkey sandwich.

A caused decision is the product of what happened before. A logical process, an accumulation of preferences, a reaction to some event. Though we may believe we chose, there is actually no freedom in such a decision. It’s outcome was forced by what went before. At the most obvious of many levels in play, using health conscious input factors we logically chose turkey. That’s a rational and willed decision. But it’s not free.

An uncaused decision is unlinked to prior circumstances. As such it must by definition be spontaneous. It must materialize without context or reason. Quantum phenomena are a good example of this. We can imagine some mental die-roll that allows us to pick at random and get turkey. Again there is no possibility of freedom here. Because we can’t control or influence such events. They must be random. Because it was random, it was not willed.

There are no other classes of event. Not in this universe. Not in any universe we can imagine.


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