Monday, March 17, 2014

Skewed Up in the Real World

Life happens.  Most of the time, the sun rises, we go about what we’re doing, we start some things, finish a few less and randomly bump into unforeseen moments and then, the sun sets.  If you’re reading this blog, there’s a high probability that you’ve got some form of shelter, you’re connected to communication with the outside world, you probably had a few meals in the past few days and, with few exceptions, you’re living in relative peace and tranquility.  Furthermore, there’s a better than even chance that for the majority of your life, this has been your experience.  Infrequently, you’ve been in a car accident, have been evicted from your home, lost your employment, mourned the loss of a dear friend, tasted violence, seen your efforts come to naught, and contracted a fatal disease.

For many of us – dare I say most of the readers of this post – life has been disproportionately good.  In statistical terms, most of us live in a distribution of events and conditions which are like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Which is why I find myself so profoundly puzzled by the proclivities I see for people to anticipate “risk”, “crisis” or “loss” when it comes to their financial future.  Most paradoxical is the prevalence of this scarcity-laden fear among those who espouse a commitment to be part of a societal transformation that recognizes a more complete view of value and a more holistic view of engagement with the ecosystem.

Now let’s examine a recent case example of this issue.  I was at a dinner with a wonderful group of friends.  Sitting around the table were individuals working in the fields of finance, aesthetics, education, and public policy.  If you were to ask each of them for an accounting of the past year, you would find an overwhelming majority of them reporting a near perfect record of calamity-free days.  Sure, disappointments here and there but in the fat mean experience, the distribution of good days would be far in excess of the distribution of bad days.  However, ask the same group what would happen, say, if an equity market, banking sector, or business failure would be imminent and these same beneficiaries of excessive abundance immediately project a world in which words like “survival” and “not making it” and “devastating” show up.  Ask the same individuals to describe their experiences in communities around the world with far “less” wealth (defined in their paradigms) and invariably, they’d comment on how inexplicably “happy” “those people are”. 

Now I’ve discussed the illogic of the empirical and statistical schizophrenia of observing the reproducible tacit experience of life and choosing to energize a disproportionate obsession with crisis scenarios in the implicit illusion of devastating models of the future.  While continental Europe gave us the notion of risk being the loss of value in the face of possible success, life demonstrates persistent sustenance in the face of rare and infrequent loss.  In other words, it’s more likely that we’ll have something for which we should be grateful than have something to fear – yet, when looking into the shroud of a scenario-laden future, fear seems to prevail.  Our prophetic skewness is disproportionately negative in a world that is disproportionately positive.  And this is among those who have the most external evidence of abundance.

Now if this were the end of my post, you’d be left with a bit of a thud of the obvious.  But it’s not.  For my entire life, I’ve seen a world that few, if any others can envision.  Not only have I seen possibilities – like mistaking a cactus in the desert for a moose when I was a little boy (because I saw its ears) – but I’ve created enterprises around the world that have actually transformed impossibilities into reality.  I know that the madness of crowds is usually incorrect and, rather than railing against it, I’ve chosen to build vistas from which observation can evidence a reality that is masked by the madness.  I know that life is mostly good and I know that, with a bit of coaxing, even the not-so-good can be made better.  Sometimes, a lot better because it’s been so overlooked and underutilized.  No, what really puzzles me is why those who state a desire to transform or change are most frequently the ones who appeal to objections based on scarcity, risk, and fear (the sinister trinity of incapacity).  “If you take on that company, they could kill you.”  “If you choose to walk away from that project that would compromise your values, your business could go bankrupt.”  “If you engage with the powerful, they’ll corrupt you.”  All warnings that I’ve received from socially enlightened people while never encountering them in actuality and engagement with the parties I’ve been told to fear.

Shellfish exposure, according to the research of Canadians Howse, Gautrin, et al, and others, can lead to considerable allergic reactions in which a person with no previous symptoms can suddenly have anaphylaxis.  You’re going along merrily processing shrimp or crabs and then, suddenly, one day, your chest tightens, you can’t breathe and you think you’re going to die.  Like shellfish allergies, encountering people who insist on planning for adversity in the face of abundant near-certainty, can lead to a cumulative exposure allergy in which a person like me has had one too many of the “what if” scenarios pitched and the chest tightening, constricted breathing gets a bit too much.  Unlike the irreversible shellfish allergy, the scenario-skewness allergy (or SSA, as I like to call it) is entirely reversible.  When you hear dire predictions of grave uncertainties, you can simply walk away, go about your day, and at day’s end, celebrate another wonderful day of mediocre abundance… for which you can be eternally grateful. 


  1. David,
    Thank you! An encouraging post to say the least. I have started to make a quantum turn in the distinction of sustainability to embracing the antifragility in our situation as the ultimate creative collapsing opportunity. I have learned from the Lakota Oyate by becoming a partner in their intrinsic heritage and we(i)sdom continuum. I consider your notions as a bright light in Plato's Cave. Andrew James Campbell's object de art studio is a partner in our emergent learning community. if attention permits we would love to have your participation as well.
    Best regards Mushin



Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave