2015/12/03

Bradford Walker on Risk and Failure

Writer Bradford C. Walker posted an insightful criticism of "success culture" over at his blog that I deem worthy of signal boosting and comment.
Failure has consequences. You have to survive to learn from it, and you have to survive such that you can recover in a timely manner so that you can make proper use of what you learn from your failure. Guess what the vast majority of people that are alive now, or have ever lived, are in no position to do.
In other words, "The graveyards are full of middling swordsmen. Better to be no swordsman at all..."

Skip to 1:27.

Or, if your tastes run to the more contemporary and less highbrow:


Back to Bradford:
That fear of failure isn't bullshit. Failure is a luxury that most people cannot afford. That's why they take the sureshot. That's why they avoid risk like the Plague. That's why they gladly choose security over all other concerns. They literally cannot afford the price of failure. The common man knows that the majority of risk takers end up like Porkins and not Skywalker.
There are multiple truths existing in non-mutually exclusive tension here. If a particular risk involves major potential losses, and the chances of success are slim, then not taking it is a perfectly rational decision. In fact, going ahead without making a good faith effort to understand the potential consequences is simple rashness.

To play devil's advocate, there's no question that the world needs (Luke) Skywalkers, and the accomplishments brought about by their risk-taking are praiseworthy. But it's certainly no accident that George Lucas made a point of establishing that Luke no longer had a family who relied on him.

On the subject of success gurus sharing stories about how they made it:
What the honest ones will also tell you is that they (a) had seriously good luck going for them, (b) had properly prepared for disaster ahead of time so the downside (and downtime) would be minimized before setting off on the next attempt, or (c) both. Guess what the vast majority of people don't have.
There is no such thing as a self-made man. Anyone who says otherwise is either delusional or a con artist.

You rose up from humble origins in a shack with dirt floors to make a mint via day trading? That's great. But guess what. You didn't invent the internet, the stock market, or any of the technological, financial, or social advances that were integral to your success. You neither created yourself, nor do you sustain your own existence at any given moment.

Even the biggest winner stands on the shoulders of giants.

Once again: know what you're getting into, what the consequences of failure are, and whether you can sustain the fallout from those consequences before you start.
You want an explanation for why people don't start their own businesses? That's why. Why don't they rise up against the dictator or the crime syndicate? That's why. The price for failure is far too fucking high. The secure life of a corporate drone, a government agent, or some similar counterpart is preferable (however disliked) to the certain demise that comes from a failed attempt at one's own ambitions for most people.
In a normal, healthy society, this would be true. Unfortunately for most of you reading this, we live in a civilization that's become so dysfunctional that planning anything with a high degree of certainty, even over the short term, has become effectively impossible. The moral of the story? Learn which risks to take, and manage the hell out of them.

For those who are tempted to point out the apparent hypocrisy of a guy who self-publishes for a living agreeing with another indie author's warnings against foolish risks, recall that I tried the "sure shot" of college and a health care management job, only to have my future nullified at the whim of paranoid sociopaths who saw my marginally greater competence as a threat.
This is why the real factor in success comes from the steps taken to eliminate the cost of failure. When failure's consequences are minimized, the mood shifts and the desire to act on less-than-certain options rises with that mood.
Bradford nails it again. Always have a backup plan. That safety net makes walking the tightrope much less intimidating. The best risk management option for aspiring authors? Don't quit your day job!

Oddly enough, writing turned out to be my fallback option, even though I didn't know it at the time. Writing every day, even while I had a day job that I falsely thought was a ticket to a stable career, ended up being a smart move.
So, next time you see someone succeed look past the platitudes and dig into their actual resources and support network. Copy what they do, not what they say.
This message brought to you by Ten Year Overnight Successes everywhere. Survivorship bias is a seductive trap. Following Bradford's advice will help you avoid it.

Incidentally, he's got a book coming out soon.

So do I, for that matter--and one that's already available. Buy it now, and finish it before the sequel comes out.

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