Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Our endless search for safety -- and the value of flexibility, alertness and entrepreneurship

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Prosperity and happiness would be easier to achieve if we made safe decisions all day long. Imagine how efficient we would become if we never succumbed to seductive lies; how far we could go if we never got distracted by irrelevancies; how much we could profit if we never wasted time chasing impossible goals. The question is whether we can consistently ensure making such safe decisions.

Yet, an exalted view of safety can be a constant source of mistakes. Human beings seem to suffer from an ingrained cognitive distortion that makes them favour all things that are tall, wide, and long. If you think about it, you will find few exceptions to this distortion.

The groundless preference for tall, wide, and long applies equally to space and time. In cities, most people prefer to live in tall buildings rather than in small houses. In the countryside, hotels are built next to wide lakes, not little streams. In literature, most readers prefer long novels to short stories.

Our belief in safety is the culmination of our bias towards everything tall, wide, and long. We long for safety and solidity whenever, wherever we can. Children stories such as Three Little Pigs are teaching infants the desirability of solid homes. Career advisers tend to encourage youths to choose well-established professions. Dietitians will routinely recommend clients to err on the side of safety.

A better answer

However, more often than not, the safe answer is going to prove wrong. Safety is presented as the perfect answer to all questions, the solution to all problems, the meal that always satisfies. A temporary approach will be often considered unwise on principle. Anything transient is to be distrusted. Anything incomplete is to be viewed with suspicion.

Long live the mirage of permanence and safety, even if it is wrong and historically false. The truth is that human beings have been leading predictable lives since only ten thousand years ago -- since the inception of agriculture. During a ten-times larger period, during the time before agriculture, men and women had few routines --and were, in some respects, much better off.

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers used to move around frequently, carrying their household with them. A varied diet and daily exercise were keeping them healthy. Since tribes would rarely stay long in one place, they were difficult targets for parasites and predators.

In those days, man lived on the alert. Since the world was unsafe and disorderly, man's attitude was entrepreneurial. Each season brought him new challenges, each territory new scents. To danger, man reacted with prudence -- and to opportunities, with courage and self-reliance.

The concept of safety only made its entrance in human society with the inception of agriculture. Land cultivation and animal domestication brought humans a steady supply of wheat, rice, corn, milk and cheese. On the other hand, a sedentary life also brought humanity smallpox, influenza, malaria, measles, lice, and vermin.

As soon as human beings began to build permanent dwellings, rats became their companions. Insects multiplied, feeding on domesticated animals. Bacteria found a fertile ground to grow, and viruses nested and mutated. Sickness turned to epidemics, and disease to morbidity.

Safety possesses a downside of which many people choose to remain unaware until it is too late. Routine has advantages, but it can render you blind to innovation. Predictability has benefits, but it can make you passive. Steadiness has its charms but it can make you forget to enjoy the present moment.

Viewing safety as desirable at all costs can deprive you of independence. An exaggerated search for safety can overrule your perception of reality. If you long for safety too strongly, you will develop tunnel vision. Do not let your flexibility and entrepreneurship wane -- If you stay alert, change will never find you unprepared.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of ancient sculpture -- photo taken by John Vespasian, 2014.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books 

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here are the links to five audio interviews just published: