Heuristics for risk taking

Heuristics for risk taking
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers. The machine traveled 120 ft (36.6 m) in 12 seconds at 10:35 a.m. at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


A psychological definition of risk

Human groups and corresponding cultures can be split into three types based on the willingness to accept the possibility of painful consequences in pursuit of what they want. Risk is measured prior to taking an action in pursuit of goals.

The various risk profiles

The three types are:

  1. Risk averse: Extremely fearful and hence avoidant of actions that have uncertain outcomes. Looking for absolute certainty before taking any action.
  2. Risk neutral: Using fear to counter greed, and greed to counter fear, this population continuously calculates, and tries to make reasonable profits while taking some actions of uncertain outcomes.
  3. Risk seeking: Extremely greedy or adamant about what they want, this population will stop at nothing but the goal, and will take desperate measures, often trying extreme actions to reach their goals.

The social challenge

The Indian subcontinent in the third millennium, due to the consequences of subjugation, has become a risk averse population. Fear dominates. The people are too afraid even to want something let alone try actions to achieve it. It has become a land of fear & submission. As long as excess fear dominates, inaction, apathy, irresponsibility, and resignation will reign. We want to move into more attempts, concerned action, and responsibility.

High level recommendation: Use greed to counter fear

For a population to make technological, scientific, artistic, entrepreneurial progress, the members have to become more greedy. Greedy for what?

  1. More wealth
  2. More knowledge
  3. More capability
  4. More health
  5. More social satisfaction

And so on. The first step is to want. Only then can humans act, regardless of uncertainty.

Naturally, the aforementioned cultural situation impacts the working at Hexmos. I’ll outline two types of heuristics to move us from a risk averse to risk seeking population:

  1. Psychological toolkit: Teaching “how to want”
  2. Methodical toolkit: Teaching “how to pursue”

Psychological toolkit: Teaching “How to want”

Goals - not many, simple to state, difficult to achieve, and make them as valuable as life itself

Life devoid of particular attainments becomes an insignificant meaningless one. Hence, one has to work with extreme intent to attain things (both internal & external) that make life worth living.

  • Chanakya termed one of his goals this way: “Scholarship or death!”.

    • The desire for knowledge has been built up in the most intense manner, and to internalise and accept such a goal is in itself a powerful way to fuel the journey.
    • On first view, this statement may seem too extreme. Why’d anyone choose death if scholarship isn’t attained? Isn’t that a weird belief to hold?
    • However, devoid of scholarship, without mastering what our ancestors have discovered of life, man truly lives like a primitive, in the most animal-like way. Such a life is not worth living.
    • Similarly, to live without knowledge, wealth, capability, health and social satisfaction too, are lives horribly lived.
    • Hence, man must strive for these attainments to the extreme. If he doesn’t strive and achieve, then such a life is not truly worth living. The very meaning of life is lost otherwise.
  • Practice: Deeply ruminate on the goal. Acknowledge how significant it is, and the seriousness and intensity it deserves. Let the truth about the importance of the goal propel you.

Use past human experience and examples to pick the right sort of aspiration & inspiration

Listening to great scholars, scientists and wise men of history and present, one gets a glimpse of what a human being is capable of aspiring to.

  • The fact that the great scientist believed in flying machines was the one thing that encouraged us to begin our studies. -- Wilbur Wright

    • Human flight was a prehistoric goal of the human race, the pursuit going on and on for thousands of years with no clear success. What was the foundation and inspiration for the attempts made?
    • The average man on the street is incapable of seeing possibilities, let alone pursue them.
    • To fulfil human potential, one must look beyond the immediate surroundings, chatter and distraction and sincerely look for inspiration from those who have aspired higher, attempted bigger.
    • The more intelligent, wise and audacious thinkers and doers of the past had human flight as a goal. Those who came up next, took up the goal, and continued the pursuit until its final culmination.
    • Hence, for a human being to live a meaningful life, it is necessary to look into the past a little bit, and also search for what were the higher goals people struggled with, and contribute one’s life energies to such goals.
  • Practice:Identify who is propelling your thoughts. Family? Friends? Random articles on social media? Random twitter handles? Contemporary scientists? Historical greats? Opinions formed during university? By becoming conscious of the real propellers of your thoughts, you can promote or demote the influencers based on how helpful they are to your goals.

Overall, once you ruminate on the above two points, you will be able to translate what is seen as risk into an opportunity or possibility worth exploring.

Methodical toolkit: Teaching “How to pursue”

Pursuit of goals happens right now, in the middle of everyday life. For those who accept the ideas expressed in the previous section, the chosen goals by definition will be difficult to attain. It is exactly due to the difficulty involved that an intelligent human being picks such goals.

Seek out, embrace & celebrate constructive pain

  • The following is perhaps the most important quote for those who want to attain big goals.

  • The only way to be a champion is by going through these forced reps and the torture and pain. That's why I call it the torture routine. Because it's like forced torture. Torturing my body.What helps me is to think of this pain as pleasure. Pain makes me grow. Growing is what I want. Therefore, for me pain is pleasure. And so when I am experiencing pain I'm in heaven. It's great.** People suggest this is masochistic. But they're wrong. I like pain for a particular reason. I don't like needles stuck in my arm. But I do like the pain that is necessary to be a champion -- Arnold Schwarzenegger

  • Day to day, as one trains for the goal, the biggest impediment is going to be discomfort and pain. In the moment, pain feels like the enemy. For the body builder, muscles scream of pain. For the scientist, the mind meets failure to resolve the problem every single moment. However, in the long run, pain, if it is constructive, is your friend.

  • A similar thought stream comes from Chanakya, who propounded that comfort and education do not go together. One who picks comfort, by its very nature, has to give up the idea of education. And the one who picks education, if one is to be successful, must give up comfort.

  • The logic of aspiration in wanting and pain tolerance in pursuing

    • Want the goal intensely (make it worth as much as life itself)
    • Start performing the necessary actions towards the goal (usually if the goal is difficult it’s going to be painful one way or another)
    • On encountering pain, training yourself to embrace & celebrate it since the activity producing it is taking you to the goal
  • Practice: Gradually but continuously increase your own responsibilities and challenges taken. Take up initiatives where the possibility of failure is higher than previously attempted. Learn to tolerate pain first; and later, even in the midst of action, see and appreciate the higher meanings of pain.

Derive joy from every step, no matter how small, that helps you progress towards the goal

  • No matter how difficult and large the goal is, and no matter what’s at stake, and what the present situation is, one can always do what one sees as the most valuable thing that can be done. Rickover’s dictum: “Did you do your best? No? Why not?” is a useful guide to any situation.
  • Given one is using oneself to the maximum, it is good practice to derive joy out of effort. Large goals take time, effort and to an extent, luck, to manifest. But the human being demands appreciation, comfort, pleasure and joy now. The craving for the Good Things is a universal aspiration. Hence, one must replace instinctive pleasure with joy born out of concerned action.
  • Practice: Appreciate your own efforts at a lower level of detail than you presently do. Say you were appreciating yourself for completing a 20 minute workout everyday, now switch to appreciating yourself for completing a single exercise set. If you appreciated yourself for finishing an entire book, now appreciate yourself for every chapter. So, if every exercise/book previously delivered you 1 appreciation, now it’ll deliver perhaps 8-10 appreciations instead, which is a big boost. Continuous joy derived from such appreciation will commit yourself more to whatever is being attempted.

Once started, never stop until the result (or you’re no longer operational as a human being)

  • The foundational logic to become successful at anything is really simple
    • Start
    • Don’t stop until goal has been reached (or you’re no longer operational as a human being)

The mantra is: one truly fails when one stops trying, stops changing. Failure is a temporary condition. One has to keep trying, and as long as the pursuit is on, there is hope, there is possibility. Hence the deepest foundational message in the simplest words is:Keep trying.

Practice: Given the enormous intelligence of the universe and our inherent limitations as individuals in existence, taking time to figure things out is only natural. An antidote to intermediate failures is simply to keep trying; if possible towards the goal, if not possible, then a related goal, and so on. If one is actively trying, how is permanent failure ever possible?

Translate knowledge acquired into working policies and habits

Knowledge not translated to working policies and habits is near worthless. The ultimate test is in daily conduct, not in credentials or idle studies. Every piece of knowledge acquired from any source, whichever is of benefit, must feed into our lives. (Otherwise what's the use of knowledge in isolation?) And this is only possible through policies and habits we practice. Hence, every individual at Hexmos must become good at converting knowledge to living, working ways of the group. How will such a policy enable risk taking?

  • Working policies and habits helps anchor the group into a coherent functioning whole. Think of a well-organized orchestra. Through a continuous attempt at working together, we succeed. And if we work together, big, difficult goals become achievable.
  • Policies, if done right, empower the individual. Our daily reading and exercise policy is such an example. It seems constraining at first, but after a while that becomes the foundation of your strength.

Practice: For every sentence or paragraph you read from a scholarly source, ask yourself, how can this be first of all implemented in my daily life? Secondly, how can I expand this benefit to the group through some sort of policy and an implementation system?

Inversion: Try something different to escape the present situation, and also let it lead you to a new possibility

The insight comes from the bookWhy Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective by Kenneth O. Stanley. The argument is that the “search for novelty” is a better guide than the “search for the objective” for the more ambitious goals. To put it in simpler terms, if one really wants to be someplace else, then the first step is always to change the current position. Hence the focus is on deltas from your existing position. Instead of obsessing about the goal alone, it may help to shift the perspective from the goal to the tiny changes that need to be made.

Another key idea from such a “any change is good” worldview is that it is usually the case that “things get worse before they get better”. If you’re excessively focused on the goal alone, when certain steps seem to be moving away from the goal, one may become demotivated and disheartened. The “delta school” argues that such a thing is expected. Every change is taking you to a new space, and helping you to “move from simplicity to complexity”.

Hence, the mantras are:

  • Seek Objectives for traditional, easily pursued goals; Seek Novelty for ambitious goals.
  • Any change is good (compared to stasis), given a sufficiently long run
  • Things get worse before they get better; just keep making the changes diligently. See theChinese Finger Trap
  • Novelty helps you move from simplicity to complexity

Practice: If looking at the distant goal, and thinking about risk is burdensome, then shift your perspective to the very present and list something you do not like. Note down what exactly you are doing now. Try to modify the behaviour in any way, make a change for change’s sake! Don’t bother with whether it is good or bad or whatever, just change, towards whatever seems interesting to you. If one keeps doing this, there’s a possibility that heavy-set habits get broken and one slowly moves towards better behaviours.

Summary of diagnosis & transformation process

  1. Hexmos has a risk averse profile as of now; and this is non beneficial
  2. We must shift the ourselves into risk neutral and then risk seeking population
  3. The foundational thrust should be to become more greedy, for wealth, knowledge, health and capability. The desire for more will counter the fears.
  4. Hence, to move from risk averse to risk seeking, there are two types of heuristics to deploy
    1. Heuristics on what sorts of goals to pick up, where to find the right sort of goals and how to hold such goals in the mind
    2. Heuristics on how to pursue the goal, especially how to thwart obstacles of pain, need for comfort and non-constancy.