Screw risk aversion

How many risks have you taken today? Have a look at what you’ve done since waking up this morning and see where you’ve taken risks, mostly without realising at the time. The number of risks is not important. Rather it’s the realisation that risk is entirely unavoidable in the life of a human being that matters.

I’ll use my morning as an example:

1. I drove to work. Driving is probably the most risky thing I do on a daily basis. I put myself in a metal box that then moves at speeds of up to 100 km/h on my daily commute. While I’m driving, I’m listening to music, thinking about the problems I’ll face during my day, considering what to write on my blog, noticing the attractive woman in the car next to me, etc.

I’m pretty casual about the risk of driving. It’s something I’m used to. But it’s one of the few things I do that could actually result in my accidental death.

2. I took a shower. Doesn’t seem particualrly risky. But consider that I woke up late and then rushed through my morning routine so I could get to work as quickly as possible. I neglected to put the bath-mat on the floor (it typically hangs over the side of the bath so as not to get stepped on and dirtied unnecessarily during the rest of the day).

When I got out of the shower, I put wet feet onto a tiled floor. If I’d slipped, there’s a fair probability I would have fallen quite hard and injured myself – potentially to the extent of a broken leg/arm/rib…

3. I drank coffee made by someone else. I don’t generally think of this as a risky activity. But think about it. Although I trust my colleague who makes the tea, nobody really knows what goes on in someone else’s head. If she arbitrarily decided to poison me, I’d be dead.

That may seem like I’m getting a bit paranoid, but I’m not. I’m simply pointing out that there is an actual risk involved here. It’s such a small risk that I don’t feel the need to mitigate it, but for someone who is extremely risk averse, it might seem significant.

4. I’m sitting in a big building with floors above and below me. So many risks. If the builders cut too many corners in erecting this structure, the floor above could fall on me. Or what’s below could buckle under the weight of the floors above.

I don’t know the details of the materials used in the construction of this  building. Some of them could be toxic (asbestos seems unlikely but other materials could be considered safe and yet prove not to be). The construction of my environment could kill me.

5. I’ve interacted with people, objects, liquids, gases, etc. Every single interaction I’ve had with anyone or anything today probably means I’ve encountered viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc. that are harmful to humans. I’m protected from them by my immune system. But at any point, I could encounter a harmful little organism that my body can’t deal with.

In that case, I’d become ill, possibly seriously enough to die. Think that’s far-fetched? Tell that to the people who died of Ebola recently in West Africa who had never even heard of it before it killed them.

I’ll stop there. If I felt like it, I’m sure I could find hundreds of risks I’ve taken in the few hours since I woke up. But that’s not necessary.

What’s the point of all this? I’m trying to demonstrate that risk aversion is actually just counter-productive.

If you’re considering doing something and you’re concerned that the risk of failure is too high to justify it, then go through the above exercise. See the inherent risk in everything you do. Realise that risk is not a negative thing. It’s simply there, everywhere, all the time.

Do you want to do something but you’re afraid of the risks?

  • Want to write a novel (I do) but scared it might not be good enough to publish?
  • Want to go on a crazy overland adventure through Africa (I do) but afraid you might get sick/lost/broke/etc…?
  • Want to record some music you’ve written and put it on Youtube for all the world to see (I do) but afraid the world might not like it?
  • Want to embark on a creative career that includes writing, playing music, traveling, etc. (I do) but afraid of being broke?
  • Want to help poor kids with no opportunities by providing them with books to read (I do) but afraid you might not have the knowledge/skills/contacts/time/resources to make it happen?

When I look at that list of things i want to do and the risks associated with them, the risks seem significant. They’re scary.

But then I consider that just this morning, driving to work, I took a few small gaps to save some time; I drove a bit quicker than I should have in some places; I glanced at my phone while driving with one hand. If any one of those situations had gone badly wrong, I could be writing this from a hospital bed.

So why am I afraid of my novel being rejected by publishers when I’ve barely begun to write it? Why am I afraid of having no money? Why am I afraid to fail? The risks associated with the things I’m not doing don’t seem that big compared to the risks I take as a matter of course in my daily life.

So screw risk aversion. Screw fear. Screw giving up before I’ve even started. I’d rather fail magnificently. Better to be rejected/sick/lost/broke/dead in the pursuit of something than barely alive in the pursuit of nothing.

Fear, courage and conscious choices

I am in the process of working out what it is that I want from my life. It’s a long process, and I’m right at the start, but I’ve made an observation that might be useful: I am afraid of defining and forming myself through the choices I make.

Of course, that’s an illogical fear – I am going to be defined and formed by the choices I make whether I want to or not. So I suppose what I’m really afraid of is taking responsibility for the choices I make – becoming the man I choose to be. Accepting at the outset that I might choose wrong, and choosing anyway.

There is immense risk in making conscious life choices. At least it seems so to me. I could carry on living in my own comfort zone, being dissatisfied with some areas of my life and blaming circumstance or other people – pretty much not accepting responsibility for my own life.

But if I make conscious choices about the life I live, then there’s no-one else to blame. It’s all on me. If I screw it up, it’s my fault. Equally terrifying, if I succeed, it’s down to me too.

And I realise through the writing down of all of this that failing to take responsibility for my own choices (which include choosing not to choose) is in itself a choice that defines who I am.

So I’m stuck in a bit of a corner. Either I do nothing, remain dissatisfied and accept (because I understand it now) that I chose that, or I choose to become the man I want to be, take the associated risks and accept that I might fall flat on my face.

Which will I choose? To me it seems to all come down to courage. Am I the coward who is so afraid to fail that I won’t try? Or do I have the courage to accept possible failure and thereby also embrace the possiblity of success?

I hope courage wins. I really, really do. But I am afraid.

The benefits of communication technology

Earlier today, I got a glimpse of the benefits of present-day communication technology. I’m so accustomed to being able to talk to anyone and find information about anything at just about any time that I normally don’t give it a second thought. But today I noticed.

While I was sitting at my desk in Cape Town, my cellphone rang. It was my father, calling from his car (Isn’t Bluetooth useful?) to ask for assistance in solving a car-related problem. He was driving between two quite distant towns a few hundred kilometres away from where I was.

He described his problem to me. I understood what he was talking about. He’d accidentally activated something in his car and wasn’t happy about the effects. Knowing that he’d probably pressed a button by accident, however, didn’t get me any closer to helping him solve his problem.

I needed to know the layout of his steering wheel controls (there are way too many controls in his car – whoever at Ford designed the steering wheel didn’t do it very well – and they’re not that easy to read when driving on a freeway at speed) so I could tell him what to press to deactivate this particular system.

So I googled the steering wheel of his car, looked at the first good quality image I found, and saw what needed to be done. If I hadn’t known his car relatively well, I could quite easily have found the manual too, which would have explained what was required.

I called him back and told him which buttons to press (by location on the steering wheel – yes, there are that many). His problem went away (it was an inconvenience rather than a fault) and he carried on driving happily towards his destination.

The whole process was so straightforward. A short phone call; a quick google search; and another phone call. So easy. But just a few years ago, it could not have gone so smoothly.

We both have access to mobile phones – which is a given in 2015. If not, he would have been unable to call me. I have access to the internet 24/7, which is a fairly recent development in my own life (he still doesn’t have easily accessible internet access on the go).

The information I needed could be found in a matter of seconds thanks to Google and the popularity of the internet. While the internet has existed for quite a while now, the development of search technology has made information so accessible that it’s hard to fathom how anyone managed before Google existed.

Communication technology really is making our lives easier. I experienced it first-hand today, and that was just one very simple example of the benefits of today’s technology.

Another benefit, of course, is that I can write this post and you, wherever you are in the world, can read it pretty much immediately. Long live the internet!

Zuma is not the problem

If you’ve even vaguely glanced at any media source – newspaper, website, social media, etc. – in the last while, you would have noticed a lot of anti-Zuma sentiment. A lot. Everyone has something to say about Zuma. Many extend their opinions to the ANC. And it’s all doom and gloom about how Zuma and the ANC are the biggest problem in the world ever. I disagree. I don’t think Zuma and the ANC are the problem, and here’s why.

South Africa’s political system is a constitutional democracy. What does that mean? The ruling party is chosen by a vote of the citizens of the country. If the South African public really don’t want the ANC in power, all we have to do is vote them out. It’s that simple. But it hasn’t happened.

When the government of a country abuses power at the cost of its citizens but manages to stay in power nonetheless – by falsifying election results (no evidence of this that I’m aware of), buying votes (has possibly happened in South Africa), deliberately miseducating citizens as to the purpose of elections (it seems quite likely that most South Africans think “voting” actually means “putting a cross next to the ANC logo on a piece of paper”), etc. – the citizens typically resort to other means to get rid of the rogue government.

In South Africa, under the apartheid government, the majority of the country’s citizens were ineligible to vote. So did they sit back and just accept the corrupt system that was in place? Of course not! They opposed the system with everything they had. The ANC was one of a number of organisations that spent its entire existence fighting against the government. Did they fight in terms of the laws of the country (made by a government they didn’t elect)? To a degree, at first. But when that got them nowhere, they took more drastic action.

Civil disobedience followed, in which ordinary South Africans showed their objection to the government by deliberately, publicly and collectively refusing to obey the laws of the country.

And when that didn’t sway the government from its oppressive attitude, South Africans took up arms against the government, forming, amongst other military organisations, Umkhonto we Sizwe – the military wing of the ANC.

Throughout the struggle against apartheid, South Africans of integrity appealed to the international community for support in opposing the government. And the international community responded by taking measures against South Africa, including economic and sporting sanctions.

South Africans can be duly proud of the commitment they showed in opposing the apartheid government.

What I would like to know is this: where is that opposition to corruption in South Africa today? Why do South Africans accept the ANC government as it is, with Zuma at the helm? Is the situation not comparable to that under apartheid?

Zuma and the ANC are not interested in the welfare of South Africa’s citizens. Zuma himself is after power and wealth, which he is gaining in abundance. The ANC of today is not even vaguely related to the organisation that so embodied the struggle against apartheid. The present-day ANC is an unthinking, unprincipled organisation that simply follows the whims of the biggest bully in the playground – presently Zuma.

So why are we, the citizens of South Africa, putting up with Zuma and the ANC? We don’t have to. We can vote them out. If they refuse to go, we can stand together to remove them from power, with the assistance of the international community if we simply request it. We can occupy Nkandla. We can march to Parliament every day to protest the presence of Zuma in our government. We can find a million ways to actually do something rather than just speaking about it. Remember, South Africans died in the struggle against apartheid – and a lot of them knew in advance they might die, but fought anyway. Where’s that commitment now?

Zuma and the ANC are not going to simply turn around and develop integrity. They’ve learned that they can do what they want, and the strongest opposition they will get is some angry words from the opposition parties and certain parts of the media. If criticism is the cost of power and wealth, Zuma and the ANC are more than willing to pay it.

The great political problem in South Africa is not the Zuma-led ANC government. It is the acceptance of corruption by the South African public. It is the apathy displayed by us, the citizens, every day that leads us to complain feebly but otherwise do nothing. We, the ordinary South Africans, are the problem. And if there is a solution, we must find it.

The importance of listening

Today I uncovered a flaw in the way I engage with myself and other people. I assume, in some situations, that my view on a subject is more valuable than that of someone else. But that’s not a useful assumption. Instead, it’s a barrier to meaningful conversation.

I noticed this following a conversation I had with a friend over lunch. We were talking about God, religion in general, and Christianity more specifically.

The broad subject of religion is one I’ve thought about quite a lot (or at least it seems like a lot to me). I’ve come to various conclusions, some of which have changed or been proven wrong over time.

But what I didn’t really see until today is that I’ve taken on a certain arrogance in religious conversations. I’ve assumed that my having thought about the subject (a lot, according to myself) makes me entitled to dominate a conversation with my opinions.

And that’s the basis on which I had my lunch-time conversation today. The conversation didn’t go well. We didn’t manage to communicate our respective experience and beliefs well and I didn’t get the impression that either of us learned anything from the other.

In looking back at the conversation, I can see that my friend attempted to engage with what I was saying. She listened to what I said and replied constructively. In response, however, I dismissed a lot of what she said out of hand, because some of it fell into the category of “things I’ve thought about before”.

The fact that I’ve thought about something before doesn’t mean I know everything about it, or anything for that matter. My opinion doesn’t deserve to be heard simply by virtue of its existence. Someone else’s opinion isn’t worthless simply because I have my own opinion on the same subject.

I had an opportunity to learn from someone else; to be exposed to her unique experience and the understanding she’s gained from it. And I didn’t listen. I didn’t give her views the time of day. As a result, I prevented meaningful communication. I missed out on an opportunity to grow in understanding of myself and to deepen a friendship.

I’ve learned from this experience that I need to listen more attentively for the sake of taking in what is said to me, rather than simply waiting for my turn to speak again.

Solar Roadways – Holy Freakin’ S#$t!

I’m a fan of solar power. I mean, I’m a BIG fan. The idea of solar power excites me a whole massive lot. And now there are solar roadways. Holy freakin’ s#$t!

I live in South Africa. For those who don’t know, that means I’m constantly surrounded by high-quality, usable sunlight. In summer, we get a lot of sun. In winter, although it rains quite a lot in Cape Town (my city), we still get a lot of sun.

I don’t quite understand why solar power isn’t everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. Why aren’t the roof tiles above my head solar panels? Why isn’t the roof of my car a solar panel?

Why on earth are we still producing power using coal when we have a resource – the sun – that is sending us energy that can be harnessed all day? And the sun sends that energy regardless of whether or not we use it. It’s completely free.

I’d never really considered the possibility that roads could be used to generate solar power – I’m not an engineer, so the details of the materials required is a bit beyond my experience.

I’d thought that solar panels could be used alongside roadways, or above them, or at least to power all streetlights. But the idea of the entire roadway generating solar power is just awesome. It really, really needs to catch on.

The benefits of solar roadways, as designed by Scott and Julie Brusaw in Idaho, USA, far exceed what I’ve mentioned above. Just generating power is only the beginning. To see a whole lot more about the product, take a look at their promo video:

If, like me, you think this is just the most ridiculously awesome idea of ever, head over to the Solar Roadways Indiegogo page to make a donation towards the project.

Holy freakin’ s#$t! I’m so excited right now.

In support of my Muslim friends

It’s a tough time to be a Muslim. All over the world, Islam is getting a lot of bad press, and Muslims are viewed with suspicion. I’m not happy with that and I’m prepared to say it publicly.

My interaction with Islam is quite limited. I don’t know a whole lot about the religion. However, I do have Muslim colleagues and friends. I do read the news a little bit, where I come across the statements of some Muslim leaders.

And my impression of Muslims from this limited exposure? Muslims are people, just like non-Muslims. Most of the Muslims I know are kind, generous, modest people. I enjoy working with them, talking to them and being around them. Not specifically because they are Muslim, but because they are human beings. A Muslim is so much more than just a member of a religion.

And my impression of the religion? I don’t have a particularly strong impression, because I don’t know much about it. But everything I’ve seen and heard points to Islam being a religion of peace, honesty and sincerity.

Are there Muslims who are bad people? Of course there are. I can’t muster any sympathy for members of organisations like IS (who claim to follow Islam). But does that mean all Muslims are bad people? Of course not. The idea is ridiculous.

So, to my Muslim friends and colleagues, and any other Muslims who may read this, I say:

I don’t support the blanket criticism of Islam and Muslims that is so prevalent, particularly in Western media. I don’t assume you are good or bad based on your religious beliefs. I disagree very strongly with the assumption (that seems to be widely held) that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists than non-Muslims.

In a world that judges you in advance for your religious beliefs, I abstain from judgement. I commit to encountering you honestly, not with prejudice. I will like you (or not, as I am free to do) based on the person you are, not the person your critics expect you to be. I hope you will do the same for me.

Developing tolerance

While browsing through my Facebook news feed this morning, I came across an article that addressed some of the challenges faced by members of the transgender community. It struck a chord with me. I realised that I have no idea whatsoever what it must be like to be a transgender person. It occurred to me that this realisation might be the beginning of real tolerance in myself.

I’ve experienced a lot of pressure to have an opinion about everything. That’s just a part of how I interact with people. In any topic of conversation, the question “What do you think?” will typically be directed at just about everyone, including me, at some point or other. As a result, I’ve felt the need to have opinions on subjects that are vastly outside my own experience.

Examples of these subjects would be: the challenges faced by women in the workplace; how legislation should be changed to accommodate homosexual people; abortion; solutions to the seemingly endless challenge of poverty; legalisation (or not) of recreational drug use; the position of Islam in global conflict.

Those subjects (which are but a tiny sample of a potentially endless list) have one thing in common: I have no useful knowledge about them.

And yet I so often allow myself to have an opinion that is based on nothing at all. And that opinion can so easily turn into judgement and prejudice.

I don’t have to have an opinion. I can simply not know. And that seems like a good starting point for tolerance. I can encounter people who are different to me without needing to decide if I approve of the ways in which they are different. I can simply be and offer them the space to be.


A tourist in my own city

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a tourist visiting Cape Town. It’s something I struggle to imagine, because Cape Town is my home. I’m so accustomed to it it’s difficult to see it with fresh eyes. Today I’ve been able to do just that.

I’m on leave for a week. Back at work next Monday. I’m going up the coast later this afternoon and won’t be back until the weekend. But this morning, I’ve been living slowly.

Before going away, I needed to service my car. That’s happening this morning in central Cape Town. While it’s happening, I’m spending some time experiencing the city centre at a slow pace. I’m writing this post sitting in Long Street Cafe, drinking a coke.

What has struck me while wondering around Cape Town this morning is how relaxed this city is. It’s something I don’t often experience, because I have a busy job that keeps me anything but relaxed during the day, and when I’m not at work I’m at home in the suburbs which are nothing at all like the CBD.

There are a fair number of tourists around (I can tell they’re tourists either by their enormous backpacks or their foreign accents). A lot of restaurants, pubs, bars, craft shops, tour companies and various other organisations targeted at tourists are open and doing steady, but gentle, business.

I’ve seen people sitting in coffee shops, working on their laptops (much as I am now) and wondered if that’s how they make their living (it isn’t in my case).

I’m struck by the amount of gentle stimulation available. There’s music playing here, and it’s not too loud or demanding but instead adds to the relaxed atmosphere. There are people walking in and out of the restaurant and walking past on the street. No-one seems in a hurry but everyone’s going somewhere.

There are pictures on the walls of the restaurant that show Cape Town as it was many years ago. It’s familiar and at the same time completely different to the city I know now. There are TVs on the walls that are showing highlights of the Cricket World Cup that is currently on the go.

I feel like a tourist in my own city. I’m experiencing a lot at a slow pace and taking much of it in. It’s surprisingly pleasant. I’m starting to feel a desire to be a tourist in other cities; other countries; places I don’t know. I could learn a lot about myself that way.

Maybe it’s time to start planning a holiday. Not a packaged touristy holiday. A real holiday where I can experience other places as they are rather than as they’re presented by the tourist industry.

I’ve got a week to myself before I’m back in the busyness of work. I’ll put travel on my list of things to think about over the next few days.

What’s up with traffic?

Traffic is a part of my daily reality. I endure slow traffic on the way to work every weekday morning, and then again when I head home in the evening. I don’t like driving in slow traffic, but there’s not much I can do about it. And yet, I don’t really see why it should exist at all.

Traffic is, to me, just a problem waiting to be solved. Either no-one is really trying to solve it or no-one is able to solve it. I find it hard to believe the latter – there are a lot of very intelligent people solving a lot of interesting problems in the world. Why not traffic?

Just a few examples of problems that have been solved using human ingenuity:

  • We (I can hardly claim participation, but hey) found a way to make people fly, which made quick travel across oceans possible
  • We then went a few steps further and flew into space
  • We developed a worldwide network that enables us to communicate very quickly with each other (the internet)
  • We have vaccines that stop us from dying from a whole bunch of horrible diseases
  • Quite recently, human beings landed a spacecraft on a comet. That still seems like science fiction to me.

If we could achieve all of the above (a very short sample of a potentially almost infite list), then would someone please explain to me why we still have traffic jams?

The only answer I can come up with is misallocation of resources. The people who have the ability to solve the traffic problem are instead occupied with other tasks. Perhaps some of them are more important (developing vaccines for the Ebola virus, for instance), but I doubt all of them are.

Can’t we just get some bright people together and find a solution? I’d certainly be very happy if I didn’t have to crawl through traffic for an hour to make a 13km trip to work every day.