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On Risk Mitigation

Much of life is risk mitigation. In a practical sense, the game is to survive, not necessarily to flourish. (The two aren’t always linked. You can draft a large list of rock stars or celebrities who died young from overdose or some other preventable cause, but who society would have labeled as “flourishing” before their crashing moment.)

It’s obviously possible to flourish and survive, but survival is preferable. A villager who lived a primitive life and made it to 85, in some sense, enjoyed the blessings of existence more than the celebrity who crashed and burned early but got to attend The Oscars. (The serenity and humility of the village sounds better than The Oscars anyways.)

I think we all know this. I think that we all understand that survival is the game. Us moderns (Twitter users) wouldn’t be so emphatic about self-care and our well-being if something inside of us didn’t make the connection that survival comes before accomplishments. But we rarely act on this.

In theory, we get it. In practice, we don’t always do what aids the long-term. This may be due to the fact that we have competing strategies. While we’re bombarded with messages about “self-care,” that being the long-term, we’re also bombarded with messages about “living in the moment” and “yolo,” clearly strategies that aid the short-term. So we sometimes neglect the positive statistics that we’re very likely to be a part of.

According to this source, an American woman can be expected to live until 81, and an American man can be expected to live until 76. That’s a positive statistic that’s more likely for many of us to be a part of than the outlandish unlikelihoods that riddle our days with anxiety. (These are the large-scale and impersonal events that the news tells us will happen. The news has a suspect track record of predicting events, so it’s a marvel that we all fall for the same cheap trick so often.)

This positive likelihood means we’ve got a lot of years left. We have a lot of room for error in the long-term strategy department, thus forgetting the importance of risk mitigation. And that means we forget the tools and sources that have historically been used to mitigate risks. (Things like philosophy, religion, old people, the accidents of others, tall tales.)

Take this Nassim Taleb quote on religion. “Religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks.” Thus, religion is the sort of thing that Taleb says helps “adults get out of trouble, or avoid debt.”

To complicate religion otherwise is to miss its important points. Metaphysics and historical atrocities are a conversation for another day, and they need not be involved when we realize that the rules of religion work. Because in the practical world, the here and now where we should act more and think less, religion gives us the ethics to not cheat on our taxes, not covet (thus protecting our mental health), and to not cheat on our spouses. (This we of course all agree is morally abhorrent, but it’s also worth calling out because of the financial and familial consequences, and because if our said spouse abides by the same ethic, we can rest assured that they’re also less likely to cheat on us.)

As Taleb says, “An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived!” That’s the point of ideas in the practical world. We need them to survive. (Literally, like physically survive. I don’t mean that sentence in the Shakespearean, poetry is cool and keeps me alive sort of way.)

If we want to aid survival, and enjoy the survival we’re experiencing, we should always be considering the likelihood of common events that seem rare to us because we moderns think we’ll never be harmed. These aren’t to be confused with the impersonal “events” that the news tells us will happen and actually won’t. This is in reference to the personal and not too far off (and sometimes pretty likely if we actually sat and thought about it).

Technically speaking, “rare event” terminology should be saved for Black Swans. Our risk mitigation strategies and long-term thinking should include things that are obvious and possible, like: termination, flat tires and expensive car repairs, unexpected surgeries or injuries, our apartment blowing up like that scene in Fight Club, burglary, burnt toast, or a movie we’re looking forward to being banned because some unnamed someone in a distant corner of the internet is offended.

Us moderns only chalk these up to “rare events” instead of “possible events” because we fool ourselves into thinking they won’t get us. We miss them because they’re in our personal blind spots. But they’re the events we have to be prepared for — mentally, physically, psychologically, and with our bank accounts. They’re the opposite of the end of the world fairy tales that fear-mongers and click-bait writers warn us about. They’re also less fun to think about, because they’re more likely to be a sunrise away.



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