Why we are far too timid in our lives and work and how to stop playing a “prevent defense.”
I’m Alan Weiss with the Uncomfortable Truth. I’m sitting here today after still another snow blizzard, thunderous, dangerous warning here in the northeast of the United States where it’s been snowing for approximately 10,000 years since the original people to inhabit the land walked over the Bering Strait and somehow wound up here. Long before Columbus or the colonists or anyone else came, it’s been snowing in New England, and it still will next year.
And so, we get some snow, and we panic because we’re so conservative. We’ve all become too conservative, we lose money, we lose time, and we often lose faith, so every storm is a blizzard. And nineteen meteorologists on all the major channels have to warn you, and there’s a run at the grocery stores. Then people get heaters, and they get generators. And they clear out the bread, the toilet paper and everything else. Work is lost, theaters close, all kinds of people lose business, appointments aren’t kept because of the danger.
They were thinking about shutting down Interstate 95 in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This is one of the most important roads in the entire nation, and these three states are going to shut them down. It makes no sense. This is not some natural catastrophe. It’s not a once in a century storm. We’re not getting any better, not getting any bolder. We’re too archly conservative. We want protection for everything and from everything. This should be an insurance agents paradise. They should think they’ve died and gone to Shangri-La. Nobody wants to take a chance.
Have you ever refinanced your house or signed for a mortgage? You have to initial every single page. You have to sign in about 25 places. My attorney told me that it was about three pounds of stuff that she had to go through page by page. You can’t do it electronically, and she pointed out how most of it isn’t needed except for CYA purposes in the most extreme conditions. You sign documents all over the place. You know, when I’m getting a car, when I buy a new car, those car dealers want to move the car, and so they input a few things to the computer. It prints out a form, you sign in one place, and you’re gone. They want to move cars. The banks don’t want to move money.
You know, there’s an old story I read once. I don’t know where, but I assume it’s not apocryphal and it’s true. I think you’ll agree once you hear it. Turns out there’s an army colonel, and he has a corporal as his secretary outside his office. They deliver a manila envelope for the colonel, and you have to mark in, you have to sign in for everything. You keep it in a big log. The corporal hands the manila envelope to the colonel, and the colonel looks at the log entry. He says, “Wait a minute. You can’t initial for this. Only I can initial for this, so I want you to erase your initials and then initial your eraser.” Now maybe that can only happen in the military, but I think it happens to us all the time because we’re so damn conservative.
You know, if lawyers had their real choice, I told you I would get here. If lawyers really had a choice, they would tell their clients do not open for business, do not unlock the doors, do not turn the lights on, do not let people into the building because if nothing’s happening, nothing can go wrong. And that’s how conservative lawyers are. They don’t want to take a chance about anything. Have you gone into ballparks lately? There’s nets up all over the place. They’re afraid of fans falling out of the stands. They’re afraid of people getting hit with broken bats and random fly balls.
Now I would agree with you immediately that we should protect the public, but those ballparks have been there. We’ve been playing ball in them for ages and ages, and it’s rare for anybody to get hurt except somebody who gets drunk and falls out of the upward decks, and so you have to take a look probability here. We could encase everyone in shrink wrap like they do some luggage at the airports and put them in their seats to watch the game, but you’re not going to sell much beer that way.
There’s a Mercedes recall right now. My new Mercedes truck has a recall already. The recall as far as I can determine from the legalistic language is about the cover on the inside console. This is where you put your glasses and your tokens for the bridge or whatever. It turns out that it might not latch as securely as it might if you had about a 50 mile an hour collision, and it wouldn’t meet US standards. If I have a 50 mile an hour collision on the highway head on, the console opening up and hurting me is the last thing I’m worried about, but here we go through all the expense and time wasted with this recall because it doesn’t meet some lawyers definition from some auto company under some government regulation.
We’re often careless you know, but that’s not risk taking. We’re archly conservative. Some people are careless, but that doesn’t mean they take more risk. Sonny Bono, Cher’s partner, died when he skied into a tree on a downhill run. He wasn’t bold. He was careless. He was mindless. He wasn’t that good of a skier, and he gathered too much speed. He never learned how to stop. The tree did know how to stop him.
So, why are we so conservative? I thought you’d never ask. First, we’re a litigious society. We sue over everything. There are more lawyers around than there are mosquitoes, and everybody’s ready to be sued. They want to find the deepest pockets. It makes people very conservative. Second is the arrogance that comes from a complacent society by the way and a wealthy society that every grievance needs addressing. Every single grievance needs to be addressed, and that leads to a conservatism because we get afraid to discomfort anyone. We get afraid to aggrieve anyone. We get afraid to insult anyone.
Number three, there’s a fear of lack of control, and then the consequent need for protection. Life is out of control. I don’t believe I have control in life. Everyone else is controlling me. I need to protect myself. Of course, that’s ridiculous. We have a lot of control in life. Just read my new book Lifestorming, and you’ll find out how, but yet we believe we don’t.
Number four, we generalize from one incident. You know, Peter Drucker, the great management thinker and strategist said that the problem with most laws is that they’re designed in reaction to one miscreant and therefore punish a thousand innocence. Somebody does something wrong, and instead of seeing it as a one off, we regard it as the need to make up laws that cover everyone.
There was a tragedy here in Rhode Island several years ago. The Station nightclub burned down, killed hundreds of people. It was horrible. It’s a tragedy, but the cause was the two brothers who owned the place didn’t observe safety features, allowed a band playing, they had a set of pyrotechnics, had put a roof in, an interior ceiling that was flammable because it was cheaper, and they didn’t check to make sure it was nonflammable. And after the building inspectors came, they changed things back to the way they were.
So the building inspector said that the emergency exit was on wrong, this is a true story, they fixed it. When he left, they turned it back the other way again because it was easier and cheaper for them, but as a result of that, the legislature here in Rhode Island passed laws for small business and protection from fire that cost literally hundreds of millions of dollars for small businesses to pay because of these two jerks who owned the Station nightclub. That’s generalizing from one incident. Whether you like it or not, it’s awful, but it’s the wrong kind of reaction.
Number five, we’re conservative because of exaggerated claims. I don’t approach my car’s abilities. My Bentley’s rated at 205 miles an hour. My Corvette can go from zero to 60 in 2.95 seconds. That’s nice as far as I’m concerned, but I never approach either one of them because I’m prudent. I’m not conservative, but I’m prudent, and I realize what the limits are.
When you see these exaggerated claims, instead of people jumping at them, they tend to back way, way off of them. My wife is always saying about other drivers, “If they bought a car that powerful, why are they doing 18 miles an hour?” Good question.
Number six, there’s just a failure to try. We’re conservative because we’ve failed to try because we’re afraid, and so we get conservative about anything from trying to eat raw fish to trying to engage in a new travel experience or watch a different kind of a movie on TV. You hear all the time people say err on the side of safety, err on the side of caution, err on the side of conservatism. It’s a mantra in business.
We overdo safety procedures, and many of them don’t work anyway. We’re overdoing them for lip service, but they don’t work. My wife and I were on an elevator in the Textron building here in Providence. Textron’s one of the two Fortune 500 businesses in the entire state. We had a board meeting on the top floor of a nonprofit, and what happens? The elevator stalls between the third and fourth floors, won’t open, nothing happens.
And so, I pick up a phone in there. I hit the button, and a woman says, “Can I help you?” I said, “We’re stuck on the elevator.” She said, “I’m terribly sorry. Where are you?” I said, “I think it’s elevator number four.” She said, “No, no. Where are you geographically?” I said, “The Textron building.” She said, “No, what city?” I said, “What city? Where are you?” She said, “I’m Otis Elevator in Hartford, Connecticut.” I said, “Well, it’s a little bit far to dispatch the emergency team wouldn’t you say?”
What good is that kind of conservative protection? It doesn’t work. We pounded on the doors and somebody came from building maintenance. We also don’t think that others are as smart as we are, and so we get conservative because we assume they’ll do the wrong thing. We can’t trust them. I love these surveys of the American public where something like 85% of respondents say that they’re above average. Do the math. We don’t trust other people. We get worried about them. We assume that they will err, and so we get very conservative.
We engage in blanket thinking, and blanket thinking means one bad thing happens and we assign it as a constant. There’s an old, old example about a cat who jumps on a hot stove. The cat, of course, jumps off, learns its lesson, but then it won’t jump on any stove even a cold one. Cat doesn’t know, just knows the stove was what hurt. We act the same way with a lot of things, whether it’s an experience or a technique, or different people.
We also tend to believe too much. The guys guarding the East German side of the Berlin Wall were called Volpos, I believe. They were East German Police. They all had these ferocious looking German Shepherds.
Now I own a German Shepherd, and they’re hell to deal with if they’re angry, but once the wall came down and Germany reunited, the big problem was to try to find homes for all these Shepherds because they were docile. They never learned to attack. They didn’t follow commands. They just walked around with the Volpos as a sign of fear, but the dogs weren’t vicious.
We too assign things to others, to people, to events that we shouldn’t be, and it causes us to be conservative. We often overreact to what others feel on a singular basis. For 50 years, five, zero years, there was a prayer on the wall of Cranston High School here, one of the high schools in Cranston, Rhode Island that invoked the Lord’s blessing on all the students who passed. That’s all. It wasn’t meant to convert or anything else, but one woman about three or four years ago decided at 16 that she was irreparably harmed by walking pass this prayer every day.
When the school board and some alumni tried to fight it, the ACLU joined in on the girl’s side, and they didn’t have the funds nor should they have spent public education money trying to defend this. They had to jackhammer this thing off the wall after they had covered it with some kind of drapery. That’s just utterly absurd. It’s not about church and separation. It’s about one person feeling aggrieved with no good reason.
We have knee-jerk fears. Remember milk was no good for us. Red meat was no good. Eggs were no good. Fat was no good. Actually, these are all parts of a healthy diet. As for gluten, if you have celiac disease, it’s a problem. If you don’t, it’s an affectation.
Sometimes when I’m out with clients, I ask the server to bring me a bowl of gluten.
We also feel that by expressing fears we’re acting prudently, and we’re taking the lead. A couple of years ago I tried to run one of my international meetings in Marrakech, and a couple of people claimed that Marrakech was dangerous. There was no empirical evidence at all that Marrakech was dangerous. At the time it was probably safer than most European countries. Yet, there was a human cry we can’t go to Marrakech. We’ll endanger, so I had to move the meeting to Seville in Spain. Cost me about $22,000 I recall in cancellation fees, but I moved the meeting to Seville in Spain.
One of the people who had complained about Marrakech not only didn’t go to Seville, he went on to Israel, and so what was he trying to prove? I’ve since tossed him out of my community. Adios.
What are the ramifications for all this? Well first, self-editing, which is basically a conservative endeavor, worrying about what you wrote or what you’re going to say out loud wastes time, wastes tremendous time. Number two, we have a hunt for perfection to try to be perfect not just successful. That’s highly conservative, and it costs us money and time. Number three, there’s a disproportionate impact of lawyers today.
The founding fathers in the United States imposed term limits on some things and put in certain procedures because they feared an agrarian influence in congress. They never dreamed there would be a legal influence in congress. Never in a millions years did they dream that, but we have lawyers all over the place today with disproportionate powers.
There’s an abandonment of good ideas when we’re so conservative. Anything that seems risky we don’t pursue, we don’t follow up. There’s a lost of comfort and a lost of aesthetics. People object to a writing on a wall. People object to a painting. People object to some symbol that only they interpret in a bad way, and there’s a general lack of innovation and creativity. When you’re conservative, you don’t create. When you’re conservative, you hide.
Football has a prevent defense. It’s probably the most conservative aspect of American football, and it occurs when you have a lead and you try not to let the other team score by preventing long plays, but you give up the short plays. When you do that, the other team often wins. The prevent defense is not effective. Bill Belichick was coach of the Patriots, who just won a fifth Super Bowl with Tom Brady, has always been accused of running up the score at the end of the game. Instead of going into prevent defense, he tries to keep scoring and run up the score.
His opponents complained that he runs up the score. He says, “The last time I looked at the rules here my job is to score. It’s your job to stop me, not my job to stop me.” He’s not conservative. That’s how he wins so much. That’s why bullies win so much. If you don’t stand up to a bully, they take over. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile, but when you confront a bully because bullies basically have inferiority complexes, they’ll generally back off, but if you’re conservative, that will never happen.
Therapists won’t tell you what you need to know because they’re conservative. They want to know how you feel instead of telling you what to do. I’ll tell you something I rarely tell. When I was going for my PhD in psychology, I worked for 200 hours for the Samaritans, the suicide self-help, not self-help, the suicide group that tries to prevent suicides, and they’re a nonprofit. They have open lines that you can call, and since the government has stopped funding many of these things, they became important than ever.
I was in actually the last assignment over the 200 hours, which was an overnight. One time a month you spent eight hours overnight there from whatever it was, from 12 to 8 or something like that. Usually, the shifts were four hours. At three in the morning, I got a call from a woman named Karen, who told me she was an attorney with a three-year-old daughter, and she had a gun in her hand. That’s one of the first questions you asked at The Samaritans, do you have a weapon?
She told me that her husband had left her. She didn’t feel any kind of self-worth. She thought it was time to end it. She was going to reach out one last time to see if someone could explain why she shouldn’t. She had no colleagues close to her, no family who would help her. I said to her to put the gun down, and I heard a clunk. We talked it through.
The Samaritans, you’re just supposed to listen. You’re not supposed to give advice. You’re supposed to say, how does that feel, that must feel awful, oh my what was your reaction, but instead I said to her, “Hey listen, how is your daughter going to feel? What will your daughter be thinking ten years from now when she’s 13 and her mother killed herself when she was three, never really got to know her, her father was gone, and her mother killed herself? What happens to your daughter? Think about that.”
She thanked me and hung up. At around 7:30 in the morning as I was turning over the shift and getting ready to leave, the phone rang again. It was still my duty to answer, and it was Karen. She said, “You saved my life. Thank you.” Now I didn’t act conservatively. I broke The Samaritan’s rules, and I think it’s a good thing I did.
Now, who tend not to be conservatives? Surgeons aren’t conservative. How can they be? They get in there and operate. They’re sometimes they’re accused of cutting too much, but these people have literally your heart in their hands, and they’re not conservative people. Pilots aren’t conservative. Oh, they go through checklists and things, but pilots are not conservative. They’re bold.
I remember being in Buffalo in a blizzard, and there was another blizzard in Boston. These are in the days when people weren’t scared of the darn weather. And Boston was thinking about shutting down, and Buffalo was going to shut down. All of the people were waiting there. The pilot finally showed up from an incoming flight. He was late. All of the rest of the crew was onboard. They said to him, “Here are the weather reports.” He said, “Is Boston open?” They said, “Well as of now, yes.” He said, “Then get these people onboard. We’re going there.” And we got there, and he managed it well. Pilots aren’t conservative.
Entrepreneurs aren’t conservative, not the successful ones anyway. Writers aren’t conservative if they’re good writers. If you look at some TV shows, take The Walking Dead, any show that’s developed a strong following, good writers aren’t afraid to kill off major characters. They’re not afraid to have extraordinary plot twists.
Those who are successful in the military are not conservative. Patton, and Eisenhower, and Washington, and Grant, and Chester Nimitz, these were not conservative people. They were bold people. They made the tough calls. Star athletes aren’t conservative. They call for the ball. They do amazing things. They take chances.
Now, let me conclude by telling you this. If you want to escape conservatism, here’s what you do. First, understand what the true risk is. Risk is really probability of occurrence and seriousness if it occurs. If probability is fairly high, but seriousness is minuscule, do it. If seriousness is really high and probability is even low, you might not want to do it. So, take a look at probability and seriousness. The seriousness of a plane crash is humongous, but the probability of it happening is almost zero, especially in the United States.
What’s the upside downside? I tell my coaching clients all the time, there’s no downside to what you’re suggesting only upside, do it or there’s no upside to what you’re doing only downside, don’t do it. If there’s both an upside and a downside, calculate which is most probable and which you’re willing to undertake at what risk. You have to have resilience. You have to be able to bounce back from setbacks and defeats. That way they won’t kill you.
If a defeat kills you and it damages your self-worth, you will be conservative. If you’re resilient and make the best of it, you will not be. If you want to escape conservatism, hang out with risk takers. Through osmosis understand how they think and act like they act. When you’re with your attorney, give your attorney directions, insist that your attorney give you options. Don’t just accept an attorney’s advice. Ask questions.
Finally, always play with house money. If you’re ahead, that’s when you bet. If you’re at the casino and you’re up, you bet heavier. It’s house money. The same thing in life. When you’re successful, take more risk, be less conservative. Puritanism has been described as the abject fear that someone somewhere is enjoying themselves. Don’t be a puritan. One last story and I’m done here.
I was on Amtrak, traveling from Providence to New York in August. It was about 100 degrees outside, but the first class car was well air conditioned and comfortable. It was about two-thirds filled. A woman got on at the next stop, which was New Haven. She’s dressed with short-shorts, and a midriff blouse tied somewhere over her abdomen, and strappy sandals, and nothing else. She didn’t have a pocketbook or a book to read.
As she sat there, she said after five minutes to the first class steward, “It’s too cold in here.” Now she barely has any clothes on. “it’s too cold in here. I need it warmer,” so the steward says, “Yes ma’am,” and he walks to the back. I hop up and follow him. I said, “If you change the temperature in here, I will personally report you to the CEO of Amtrak.” He said, “Watch me.” He stood back there for about two minutes just looking around. Then he walked back and he said to her, “Is this better?” She said, “Much better. Thank you.”
Folks, throw conservatism out. Lead, go for it. You’ll be glad you did. That’s the uncomfortable truth. See you next time.