A Convoluted Take On Taking Risks
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
We all know what risks are, but most of us don't fully understand risks in the context of real life.
A couple definitions of "risk" from Merriam-Webster are "possibility of loss or injury" and "the chance that an investment (such as a stock or commodity) will lose value." By its very definition, risk means there's a chance of failure -- the higher the risk, the greater the chance of a negative outcome. When we look at events in real life however, we lack the ability to see them as a probability: like a Schrödinger's cat of achievement, succeeding and failing at the same time.
If you've never studied quantum mechanics or have tried and struggled to wrap your brain around it, you're in good company. Here's what you need to know about Schrödinger's cat to help you understand the way we think about risk:
Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment that illustrates the phenomenon of quantum superposition. Imagine there's a cat in a sealed box with a flask of poison and a radioactive atom. When the atom decays, some mechanism breaks the flask and the cat dies from the poison. While the box is still closed, we can think of the cat as being in a state of dead and alive simultaneously. It's not until we open the box to check that its fate is confirmed. This act of doing (opening the box) "collapses" the cat's state to either dead or alive.
This limitation in our thinking prevents us from pursuing dreams and causes us to judge others far too harshly... and I'll explain why.
The Killer of Dreams
From the praise received for being a high achiever as a child to humanity's natural tendency toward loss aversion, many of us have been conditioned to believe that it's not okay to fail. We all hear that mistakes is the best way to learn, but we're ridiculed for being less than average, making it ever more difficult to start something new and get past the clumsy beginner phase. This is all compounded by the fact that social media highlight reels force feed us beauty, perfection, skill, and success on a daily basis.
There's an unspoken agreement that being less than perfect isn't worth showing. And if it isn't worth showing, is it even worth doing?
Time is precious; it's our most valuable resource. Why waste it doing something at which you're not the best, when you could spend it watching the person who is the best? This fear of failing, of maybe not ever making it to the top, prevents us from doing so many things that would bring us joy. We avoid taking the risk because it's more comfortable staying safe. You can't fail if you never tried, and who doesn't want to maintain a 100% success rate?
The problem with staying in our comfort zones is that the absolute best parts of life occur when we're picking ourselves up from the 100th failure to finally grasp a tiny bit of success in the next attempt. You can't find the things at which you'll be the best, happiest, fullest version of yourself without getting a little banged up along the way. You've got to cast your net wide knowing that most opportunities won't pan out, but the ones that do will more than make up for the rest.
Think about venture capital firms. How is it that they can accurately pick successful investments often enough to stay in business and be as lucrative as they are? They simply cast their net wide enough knowing they'll hit it big with a few key picks. The vast majority will be flops, but they're willing to accept these inevitable "failures" because the few winners will outweigh the rest. These "tail end" successes wouldn't be possible without facing the high risk of investment over and over.
In our own lives, few people can say they've hit upon a "tail end" success themselves. We have careers that we tolerate, live in the same places we grew up but don't love, and have brains full of memories that are pleasant but safe. We rarely take chances on ourselves to see what our limits are. We let failures wear us down instead of seeing them as stepping stones to the next windfall success, until we only chase pursuits that are sure things.
When thinking of an opportunity, we try to look forward to the end -- will it succeed or fail? We can surmise as long as we want, but at the end of the day it's still Schrödinger's cat. It exists as a superposition of success and failure until we see it through to the end. We can help set ourselves up for success as much as possible, but we don't know the fate of the cat until the box is opened. That fear of opening the lid makes us carry on in ignorant bliss. We'll just leave it unopened instead of following that opportunity through to the end.
In our heads, we automatically collapse the opportunity to its possible endings, success and failure, and we then often fixate on the negative. We count ourselves out before we've even started because we fail to see the possibility in the uncertainty.
I implore you to find the Schrödinger's cats in your life. What dreams have you left lying around, afraid to pursue them because of the chance -- however large or small -- that you'll fail? In a world of watching through screens as others be the best at our passions, chase those tail ends and find your own success story.
The Creator of Judgement
The second effect of this thought pattern is that we're often quick to judge others as having made terrible decisions because we fail to see the world of possibility that they decided to pursue before it collapsed into a less than optimal ending.
It's too easy to pass judgement on the failed entrepreneur or athlete or business owner or artist or content creator that gave it a shot and didn't quite make it. Because the box has already been opened showing us the cat is dead, we don't think about how long it was hanging out in there both dead and alive, and how much courage it took for that person to take the action to find out for themselves whether their Schrödinger's risk was going to pan out or not.
What it all means
Leaving the physics metaphor behind, I hope this examination into the idea of risk makes you excited to invite more of it into your life. Know that you could fail, but that's why it's worth doing. If it were a surefire way to success, everyone would be doing it. Do the things that feed your soul and give you energy and you'll be well on your way to a fulfilling life.