A synthesis of risk management, part 1

Foreword: This blog post is the result of my notes, taken with different interests in mind, converging towards a topic of risk management, hence the title of the blog post. In the first part, the narrative examines risk using multiple insights that I have been able to obtain over time. These insights (to me anyway) are drawn from biology, system thinking, philosophy, theology, and personal experience.

Controlled fires

People tend to overestimate risks and underestimate opportunities because, evolutionarily speaking, missing a threat is more detrimental than missing an opportunity. You can survive on an empty stomach for days if you miss a deer, but missing a lion or a wolf would result in an unfavorable outcome immediately. That said, taking risks in a controlled manner has many benefits, and sometimes is crucial to survival and growth. A case in point is the fact that humans use controlled fires to improve the ecological health of forests.

Controlled fires help eliminate the decaying layer that prevents access to soil and impedes growth. As the dead and decaying plant begins to build upon the ground, it prevents animals and organisms from accessing the soil, as well as preventing new plants from growing. This is obvious on a practical level, insufficient job-related skills prevent you from accessing potentially life-changing job opportunities, and insufficient social skills prevent you from having a potentially life-changing relationship.

More Philosophically

On a more philosophical level, when you learn, particularly when you learn painful things, you let the insufficient parts of you burn off like dead woods. Nobody likes letting parts of them die, yet this process is necessary to turn chaos into habitable order. God created the Garden of Eden, a paradise. He also created Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, there was also a serpent. This represents the fact that, even for God, it is impossible to create a space completely protected from the outside. Chaos always sneaks in and emerges within, hence the presence of the serpent.

Chaos, in its positive form, is the formless potential that God made the world out of at the beginning of time. In its negative form, it is the malevolent monster, the serpent lurking in the darkness around a campfire, preying and pulling you into the abyss. Situations characterized by sudden malevolence are usually referred to as a tragedy, and withstanding tragedy necessitates the abandonment of your insufficiency.

When human beings do not undergo controlled fires, the dead woods pile up over time. These dead woods, or decaying matters, are easily flammable. They increase the risk of uncontrolled fires, which are far, far more destructive. What this means is that the more insufficient parts you have, whether it is an insufficient skill set, mindset, or insufficient assumptions about the nature of your relationship with someone or with the world, the more you are prone to destruction, because any event may create a situation that you are insufficient to deal with, and can lead to a cascade that ends in you spiraling downward, or death.

Imagine one of your loved ones passed away, and you are insufficient at preparing for the funeral. Other people in the family fight at times like this and you are unable to help because you lack sufficient understanding of their motivations and conflicts. You may be unable to recover from such a tragic event psychologically, due to insufficient understanding of the nature of life and death. At times like these, it feels like the whole universe is against you. It is true partially, but the other half of the truth is that you didn’t take the necessary risks and make the necessary investments in order to gain the ability to withstand tragedy.

From a system thinking perspective

One way to separate chaos and order is to look at the range of conditions under which a system can maintain its functions. Chaos ensues when the system does not manage to get back to its regular working state. The process by which a system can get back to its equilibrium is called negative feedback loops. An example of negative feedback loops is when the body temperature rises above normal temperature, your skin and blood vessels expand in order to be exposed to the cooler external environment. As the body cools down, they contract in order to retain heat, thus maintaining the body temperature at a relatively constant level.

You can strengthen your negative feedback loop, by deliberately seeking discomfort at a reasonable level. Technically speaking, frequent, controlled risk-taking is a way to increase the strength of negative feedback loops in a system. A strengthened negative feedback loop enables a system to get back to equilibrium under a wider range of conditions. One practical example is physical exercise. When you exercise, you stress your body voluntarily so that it can work even under abnormal conditions, i.e when the situation demands a certain amount of violence or force in order to survive or thrive (yes, a fight). Inoculating yourself with risks is like injecting yourself with a vaccine, you train your body to respond to small flu so that you can survive big flu.

Hopefully, these examinations of risk are able to make you ponder about the manifestations of risk in your life and provide some lenses for you and entry points for you to investigate further. There are more parts to come, stay tuned.


The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career

The Ecological Benefits of Fire

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

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