Monday, May 15, 2017

Love and Compassion in Action

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. - Dalai Lama

The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others. - Albert Schweitzer

In the middle of the largest M & A (mergers and acquisitions) deal of my career and in the early incubation stages of a Foundation designed to serve the people who serve and lift others, I found myself unable to sleep at 3:30am and began the rigor and discipline of my day.

My day always begins with Quiet Hour, a time of reflection, contemplation, meditation, prayer and planning in preparation for a busy day but this morning, I felt compelled to go somewhere I never go for Quiet Hour.

I tried to change my mind but something kept calling me to go to this place so I finally acquiesced and proceeded to a local 24-hour coffee shop.

It was filled with the usual crowd in the wee hours of the morning, truckers beginning or ending their day, young people laughing, a few people working intently on laptops …. the usual mix.

It also had two “kids” sitting there, two young people in their late teens or early twenties, slightly dirty, disheveled and looking slightly uncomfortable or lost.

My Quiet Hour began as it always does, with my books, my journal and my cup of tea spread out before me and my noise cancelling headphones playing my meditation music du jour.

As my Quiet Hour ended and I changed my music to up-tempo music to energize my day, I noticed that a couple (maybe late 30s or early 40s) were talking to the kids.  The man had an acronym on his jacket which I Googled (I’m a data guy) and I discovered that they represented a local outreach program for the homeless and for people who struggle with addictions.

I took one ear bud out of my ear and listened intently to the interaction.

I observed the gentle but persistent methods that the couple used in telling the kids about the options that were available to them, that there was no pressure or obligation and they if they wanted help, it was available to them.

The couple left and sat outside in their vehicle.

The kids discussed this back and forth as they wondered about it and dismissed it simultaneously.

Then they paused, looked at each other, shrugged, stood up in silence and went outside.

They picked up their bikes, proceeded to the couple’s vehicle and shared some words I did not hear with the woman in the passenger seat.  The woman wiped her eyes and smiled, the man got out and helped them place their bikes in the back of the vehicle and they drove off together.

Perhaps someone’s Life was changing at that moment.

As I reflected on what I had just witnessed, I looked down upon the paperwork for the sale of one company and the creation of another and I realized that I had been given the gift of emotional fuel – a reminder of why I do what I do.

It reminded me of a colleague on the other side of my then largest M & A deal who said, “Remember, we are doing this for our families and for those we serve and not for the money – that’s why we do what we do.”.  His observation changed how I finished the deal and everything I did ever after.

Just then I realized that a line from “Raise a Little Hell” by the Canadian music group Trooper was playing in my ear:

If you don't like what you see, why don't you fight it?

If you know there's something wrong, why don't you right it?

I just witnessed someone righting a wrong.

The Bottom Line

It is easy to get caught up in the trials and tribulations of our Life, whether it’s a large business deal, screaming kids, the fact that our $5 latte and $8 cupcake doesn’t quite meet our expectations (seriously), our belief that our clothing is out of date, our thought that our car is just not new enough, our complaint that the food selection at the supermarket is “not good enough” and the like.

We get caught up in a lot of things in our Lives that others can’t even dream about.  As we go about our day often ignoring the blessings and abundance all around us while simultaneously wondering how our Life should somehow be better “just because we demand it”, someone wonders if they will eat tomorrow, where they will sleep, how they will overcome an addiction ….

…. or if anyone cares at all.

The couple I watched today showed these kids that they matter.

I hope the love and compassion felt by these kids “sticks” and that they move on to create something greater in their Lives.

Experts say that sharing love, compassion and support touches specific parts of our brain and imparts important benefits upon us mentally and physically..

They also say that the same benefits are received by those who are on the receiving end of such gifts.

And equally importantly, they say that those who witness such an exchange are benefitted in the same way.

Was I “called” to be at this spot today to witness this or was it just coincidence?

It depends on what you believe.

Someone out there needs to feel love and compassion today, to be lifted when they feel no one cares for their story and their Life.

Are you willing to be that person?

Maybe you’re the person who needs it – don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Putting $10 in a donation box is one thing.

To get up, get out and serve is another – an act that could change your Life and the Life of someone else forever.

I am reminded of this quote by Bob Pierce (the founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse) when he described “The Great Compassion”:

Let my heart be broken by that which breaks the heart of God.

What in the world so troubles your heart that you can’t bear for it to continue?

What are you willing to do about it?

The world and someone in it is waiting for you.

What are you waiting for?

In service and servanthood,

Harry

Friday, May 12, 2017

Last Chances Don’t Come With Warnings

We never really learn from the first mistake, second or third.  It only hits us when we're given the last chance.- Wiz Khalifa

Last night, I was reminded about the importance of finishing what you’ve started with a sense of urgency while you still have the time to do so.

Late last night as a small group of us stepped outside to wind down our evening, we noticed a lightning storm off in the distance.  The lightning was beautiful and approximately 4-5 miles away according to the old “one-one thousand, two-one thousand” quasi-accurate calculation of distance.

Assuming it was safe to proceed with the storm safely off to the south, we began walking when suddenly lightning struck the ground all around us with blinding light, phenomenally loud thunder and a strange, loud sizzling sound in the air.

It wasn’t just one flash but several.  I had fallen to the ground, saw it striking the ground all around us and I remember yelling “Get down, get down, get down”.

After the terrifying moment had passed, I noticed my colleague was still standing and shouting incoherently.  When I asked “Why didn’t you get down on the ground?”, their response was, “I couldn’t – I was frozen and too afraid to move.”

“You always hit the ground when this happens”, I replied, shaken and frustrated at the same time while feeling grateful having survived my third near-strike of lightning.

I later morbidly tweeted that the shareholders would have been ticked off had we been killed so close to the conclusion of a significant deal.

This morning, my colleague still wasn’t feeling 100% as we discussed how close we came to an untimely end.

It got me to thinking about close encounters in my Life.

Bear with me for a moment – there is a method to my madness:

I have survived:

  • 5 aviation incidents - two RPM governance failures on takeoff, a near-miss on final approach, a structural integrity compromise during a violent storm (requiring an emergency landing) and a depressurization.  The lightning strike I encountered on a flight once is considered normal.  I mused about one of the incidents in the post The Last Hour of My Life.
  • A bicycle crash that split my helmet in two when my temple hit the pavement at 25+ mph and left me with a serious concussion, a lot of cuts and abrasions and a destroyed bicycle.  I am an official member of the “Saved by the Bell” club, a designation where a Bell bike helmet was proven to have saved your Life.
  • Another bicycle crash that occurred when I was clipped on the left by an SUV whose driver wasn’t paying attention to how close they were to me.
  • Two near misses by tornadoes, including one that touched down half a block from where I had gone out for a walk and one that formed over me in Vulcan, Alberta and touched down a short distance later.  In the latter incident, I was so busy filming it over me that I didn't realize I was in significant danger.
  • A strike by a vehicle from behind where the vehicle was carrying a piece of lumber sticking out the passenger side of the vehicle.  It was a rainy night and I was walking on the sidewalk when a voice to my left (right by my ear) yelled “look out”.  I jumped to the right, startled by the voice and at the moment, the lumber struck me across the shoulder blades, knocking me out.  A witness in a car behind the car that struck me told me later that he saw a flash of light right beside my head just before I jumped and thought I was jumping because of that.  I was informed by police that had I not jumped at that moment, the lumber would have struck me in the neck and likely killed me.  Who warned me?
  • Two mini strokes, one in my teens and one in my early 20s.
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (stage 4) at the age of 30.
  • A near head-on collision with a large snowplow.  I had come upon a single lane cut in a 20-foot deep snow drift, stopped, saw no one coming towards me and proceeded through it.  Unbeknownst to me, a snow plow had decided to take a second run at clearing the snow and had backed up around a turn in the road in front of me in order to get some acceleration for the second run.  As I was halfway through the tunnel, he came around the turn driving straight towards me.  In a flash, I knew I could beat him to the end of the snow tunnel and so I accelerated towards him.  I cleared the tunnel just as he entered it.  I escaped but the van driving behind me took the full brunt of the head-on collision as the plow entered the snow tunnel and the driver of the van was seriously injured.  People who witnessed the accident thought I was either lucky or crazy for accelerating towards the plow.  Maybe I was both.
  • I’ve been attacked 5 times in New York City, 4 times by individuals and once by a group of 4 or 5 guys.  Of the first 4 incidents, 2 of the 4 guys were unconscious before they hit the ground.  Regarding the group, myself and another colleague were held up by a gang of miscreants who demanded our wallets as we headed home from Brooklyn late one night.  When I refused, the leader (I assume it was the leader) told me that I couldn’t take all of them.  I acknowledged the truth of this but said I would at least kill the first one.  They looked uncertainly at each other and left the scene.  Steve, my colleague, asked me if I would have done that and I said “Yes – we were going to die anyway.  I gambled that I had to look crazier than they were and it worked.”
  • I was stabbed by a man with a mental health issue on a subway stop in Toronto who found a new use for the metal tip of his umbrella.
  • I hit a patch of black ice on a turn one night while driving 65 mph and went into a full spin (I still remember each rotation in slow motion).  I missed all the oncoming traffic, bounced off an ice wall on the opposite side of the road, crossed the road again, missed traffic in both directions, hit the wall on the original side of the highway and then came back across the traffic.  I stopped in the middle of the road, facing the wrong direction.  My car didn’t appreciate the experience but I was completely unhurt.
  • I was almost struck by a vehicle while crossing a street in Calgary during a rain storm but was saved when someone else saw it developing and blew their horn to warn me.  I mused about that in my post Angels Amongst Us.
  • I was the passenger in 5 different high speed accidents in my second semester of college.
  • I have narrowly missed many accidents as a driver, with the vehicle in front of me or behind me being taken out by various incidents.
  • I was rushed to hospital last summer with a blood pressure of 190 / 130.  Doctors were impressed that I hadn't had a stroke or heart attack.  My blood pressure is now a normal 90 / 55.
  • 15 minutes before the World Trade Center bomb exploded, I was standing on the very spot that was vaporized when the blast went off.

All of these came to mind as I reflected on last night’s moment, my third near-lightning strike.  The first one came as I stood on my lawn in New Jersey and watched a distant storm coming in.  I suddenly felt “strange” as if something was inside me and at that moment, lightning struck a playground set about 50 feet from me, with the intense light and blast of thunder knocking me over.  I was later told that a “streamer” was likely coming up through me, making me a candidate for the strike had it connected with a leader coming down from the storm cloud.  Another time, I was riding on a bike trail that cut through a car wreck yard, trying to beat a storm home, when suddenly lighting began hitting the junkyard.  I lay on the ground as lightning blasted all around me like artillery fire.

The funny thing is that I live a relatively low-risk life.  I don’t sky dive, smoke, drink or intentionally put myself at risk in any way.  I eat well, exercise and take care of myself emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.  I drive the speed limit and minimize my risk in business.  I’m so uptight about obeying the rules that even jay walking is something not on my “can do” list.

And despite a low-risk Life, I have dodged a lot of things that many people succumb to on their first encounter.

As I discussed this with my colleague this morning, I made several observations:

  1. We’re still here so let’s not spend too much time navel gazing about it
  2. Either “Someone” thinks we are not finished with our Purpose or we are very lucky – either way, we have to do something with this second chance (or whatever number I was up to, I’d lost count until I sat down to reflect on the moment).
  3. The shareholders are still happy.
  4. Let’s finish what we started.

The reality is that once again, we’ve been given a reminder that our time here is borrowed time – we don’t know how much we are given to start with, we don’t know how much is left and once time is burned for good or for bad, it can never be reclaimed.

How much of your time are you taking for granted?

The Bottom Line

We exist for a variety of reasons, to love, to share, to learn, to teach, to grow, to lift / serve others, to create and for some, to be a lesson to others.

Whatever our Purpose, we may not have as much time as we think to accomplish it.

In fact, today may be our last day, with our final moments coming without warning (the blog post title is a quote from Rob Hill).

Are you willing to allow your legacy, your gifts, your talents, your family, your colleagues or your sense of Purpose to be allowed to languish or remain unfulfilled because you took your time for granted?

Do you need a warning shot for motivational purposes?

Don’t wait for such a warning because it may signify your departure, with anything in-progress remaining unfinished.

I end my emails (and many meetings) with “Create a great day” or “Create a great day because merely having one is too passive an experience”.  Careful observers notice that I also always capitalize the L in Life.

I do it because I recognize that Life is a holy gift, without guarantees, and that we should create a great day because today may be our last.

Are you creating a great day right now?

In service and servanthood.

Harry

PS I am not a Nickleback fan at all but I was amused to discover that as I finished this post, their song, “If Today Was Your Last Day” is playing on the radio.

It’s just a coincidence, of course.

Isn’t it?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Self Discipline–Why You Can Never Reach Me Instantly

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus. - Alexander Graham Bell

We use our gadgets for distraction and entertainment. We use them to avoid work while giving the impression that we're actually working hard. - Meghan Daum

The moment of drifting into thought has been so clipped by modern technology. Our lives are filled with distraction with smartphones and all the rest. People are so locked into not being present. - Glen Hansard

I have a confession to make to the many people who wonder what the secret is to getting me to answer my phone.

If you’re not in my calendar today, then don’t bother calling / SMS’ing me if you expect an immediate reply / comment.  I won’t even know you called me until the end of the day.

In our world of always being connected, always reachable, I have noticed that a lot of people who complain that they never get anything done appear to exist to be at the beck and call of everyone around them, whether it be via phone call, SMS, Facebook, Twitter or whatever the current distraction du jour is.

That’s fine if you believe that you exist only for the needs of others or that you are willing to sacrifice your priorities in order to meet everyone else’s.

However, if you believe you exist to serve a Greater Purpose, using your strengths, gifts and talents to the greatest potential possible, you cannot exist this way at all.

When I plan my day (right after my Quiet Hour), I note who needs to call me that day and I set up my phone to allow calls and SMS to come in from those people or people associated with them.

Family members, my closest friends and colleagues / friends who are currently in trouble and need support are always on this allowed list.

If you didn’t make it to that list for the day, when you call or SMS me, you will be redirected.  I won’t even be aware you reached out until the end of the day when I do my end-of-day wind-down.

While many have told me that this is unfair or uncaring for the people who might want to reach out to say hi, to ask advice or to complain incessantly about something they have no interest in addressing themselves (using me as the whipping post for their complaints), I reply to the criticism with these observations:

If I exist to be everyone else’s entertainment, company, source of knowledge or whipping post, at what point do I get to focus on who I am and why I exist?

If I have to be at everyone else’s beck and call “just because” but the other person reserves the right to reject speaking to me because they are busy or don’t feel like chatting, where is the fairness and balance in this exchange?

If I allow everyone else to monopolize my time, who is to blame when my work / play doesn’t get completed to my satisfaction or for the needs of someone else – the people who called me or the person (me) who allowed them to overrun my day?

Is my ego that weak that my sense of worthiness and self-value is established by the number of people who reach out to me?

If it takes me 20 minutes to get back on track after a distraction, how much work can I really get done if I allow distractions to flow in through the day?

How respectful am I to you (or to someone else) if I keep pausing myself or interrupting them to check my phone?

Do the interruptions contribute to my day or do they just burn time that can never be reclaimed?

I chose one person in particular who didn’t understand any of these ideas (he called them selfish) and I called him daily “just to chat”.

After a few days, he understood, but not before getting angry with me first.  After he calmed down, he got it.

According to my mobile carrier, my phone sends / receives 22,000+ SMS messages a month.  I use SMS more than voice (unless the person I am interacting with prefers voice chats) because I’m busy and focused on meeting my goals as well as serving the needs of the people around me.  I keep communication brief, direct and fact-focused.  People not used to this eventually come to appreciate it and often adopt the same approach themselves.

If you choose to spread yourself across your entire network without any sense of focus or discipline, how do you expect to meet your goals or the goals / needs of those whom you serve (unless you don’t have any goals, in which case wasting your time or having it wasted for you won’t feel like a crime to you)?.

By the way, many times when people call you to kill time, there is a possibility that you were the last person available to them.  How does it feel knowing that your time is of such little value to them that spending time with you is only slightly better to someone than having absolutely nothing to do at all or that they called you simply because they were bored (regardless of what is happening in your day)?

The Bottom Line

The people who complain the most about not having enough time to get things done are often the same ones who have no sense of focus or prioritization in how they use their time or how they allow others to use it.  They also don’t care if / how they waste the time of others.

Those of us who have the discipline to protect our time / results by shutting out distractions believe that we don’t have the time to complain and we don’t have the right to tie up other people’s time “just because” (since we don’t like them doing that to us). We’re too busy being grounded in gratitude to have the opportunity to create and collaborate and we are focused on creating results (whether for work or for play).

And besides, if I have a complaint to make, making it to someone who can do nothing about it infects two people with a negative attitude (instead of one) and meanwhile, my problem still exists.  On top of that, the person whom I have just infected is now distracted, unproductive or spreading my negativity outwards like ripples in a pond.

We all have 24 hours in a day.

Do you use those 24 hours for balanced work / play / learning / sharing / loving effectively, do you waste them or even worse, do you allow someone else to steal them from you?

Are you sure?

I’d love to hear your thoughts but don’t bother calling / SMS’ing me to tell me unless you know that you’re on my calendar today!

In service and servanthood – create a great day for yourself and others because merely having one is too passive an experience.

Harry

PS When I do entertain the complaints of others, I remind them that I am a “touch-once” person.  When a problem comes up, we can avoid it, talk about it or do whatever we want with it.  However, if we don’t adopt a “touch-once” policy and address it as soon as it comes up, it will always be there tomorrow.

So when someone comes to me with a complaint or they are seeking advice, they can only bring it up once.  If they want to discuss the same topic later without having tried to resolve it, I shut them down.  Lack of intention or effort on their part is not an excuse to burn up my time.

If we don’t focus on solving problems at the earliest opportunity, we may find we don’t have much energy / time left to address opportunities for creating and collaborating because we’re too busy being burdened down by the noise of unresolved problems.

And that only leads to more complaining.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Things That I Wonder About

Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up. – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean. – Ryunosuke Satoro

In between selling a large tech company and starting up a Foundation that will “help NPO’s “do good better” through fact-based decision-making and evidence-based outcome assessments” (quoting friend and colleague, Doug P.), I often have other distractions that cross my mind that I feel merit some attention.

As a long-time Wall St. strategy guy, unsolved problems are always a conundrum for me, especially when the problems are significant in impact and are far / wide reaching in society.  Problems in society affect us all at some point, even if we don’t feel the affect directly (or believe we don’t).

However, I can’t tackle all these thoughts, nor should I (no individual is tagged as the “savior” of the world).  That being said, they are worthy of thought and action and so, with the encouragement of very nice colleagues who kindly never lose patience with me when I muse about other concerns in the world, I’m going to occasionally toss some ideas out with the idea that someone else may feel inspired to own some of them.

This is not a typical blog post for me such as can be found in the #1206 series, the Abigail / Gabriel series or any general post.  It is a grab bag of thoughts that pass through my brain in the course of leading a busy Life.

If you want to own one, I would be glad to help!

A subset of my random thoughts this week:

  1. How is it that the Newfoundland and Labrador Government can have as its top bureaucrat, Bern Coffey, who, while leading the bureaucratic corps of the Government, was also a lawyer representing a client who was suing a Crown Corporation of the same Government and a few years before, while a clerk of the Government Executive council, led a case against a Government health authority (details here and here)?  While officials claim they are “just finding out”, the truth is that they knew for a while.  Conflict of interest, anyone?
  2. By the same token, how is it that Tzeporah Berman can serve as a member of the Alberta Government Oil and Gas advisory team while at the same time, receive compensation for campaigning AGAINST the oil and gas industry in Alberta (details here)?  Conflict of interest, round 2.
  3. Premier Ball dismissed Coffey in the first scenario but Premier Notley refuses to dismiss Tzeporah in the second one.  When such appointments with obvious conflict-of-interest are knowingly made, what does this tell us about the leadership skills of the people in the respective situations?  Is it a reflection of poor execution, low intelligence, self-serving motives or an indifference to how things are perceived (or something else)?
  4. Are apologies or “sharp corrective action” from politicians acceptable because we believe that someone recognized their own mistake and want it fixed or are we being played as politicians attempt to harvest political points while continuing their inappropriate behavior?  In my companies, you are fully supportive of the organization that pays you or you are not but if you are not, you work to make us better through compromise or you leave.  You can’t play for me and against me at the same time.  Why don’t we demand this of government?
  5. How is it in the Newfoundland and Labrador government, a blind trust for a politician can be run by a politician’s husband, wife, daughter, son-in-law or lover?  There is nothing “arms-length” or “blind” about such a set-up.  Who do you think benefits from this arrangement?
  6. How is it that Stephen Colbert can refer to the President of the United States as Vladimir Putin’s “cock holster” when a comment such as that, if directed at the previous President, would have required riot squads to be deployed (details here)?  Why is it that the “tolerant left” has no issue when insults are issued against the one that they despise but they are quick to demonstrate in the streets should there even be the possibility that one of their own might be insulted at some point in the future?  One must respect the Office of the President and if one disagrees with the President himself, Colbert’s approach is not the way to express it.  Respect earned is respect given.  Anything else leads to significant problems in society.
  7. How is it that very few people care about emergency planning, regardless of the source / scale of the emergency?  Officials routinely warn of difficulties ahead, whether it be in the form of a cyber attack, a nuclear war, climate change-induced natural disasters and a plethora of other things and yet most people would be lucky if they could survive a minor inconvenience that lasted through a weekend.  We have all seen people panic-shop at supermarkets when a storm is forecast.  What if the “storm” came without warning.  I mused about this yesterday in the post Statistics: The Mathematical Theory of Ignorance.
  8. How is it that US politicians can claim a triumph in the low unemployment rate when the vast majority of jobs created in recent years are part-time / low-paying jobs with little or no health benefit plans?  When more than 50% of American families have $1000 or less in the bank, over 48 million Americans are on food stamps and over 98 million Americans are not working at all, how can we champion a recovery that benefits a small minority of people?
  9. Pursuant to the previous point, personal debt is growing and more than 50% of families have less than $1000 in the bank.  Where is personal freedom and empowerment for these people?
  10. If people are happier than ever, why do we have a steady increase in the need for antidepressants?
  11. The next time you are in Costco, a supermarket or other place filled with abundance, ask yourself when you last helped someone who couldn’t partake in such abundance.
  12. It is estimated that we will work 80,000 hours in our lifetime.  1% of that (800 hours or 20 work-weeks) is a small amount to spend in planning our work Life but we don’t teach kids how to do it.  In fact, if I told someone when I was 20 that I was about to spend 5 months planning my career, I would be told I was insane (even though it’s such a small number in the grand scheme of things).  We teach kids phenomenally more than when I was in school and yet basic skills of Life strategy (including long and short term goal setting), financial strategy, respectful dialog when ideas are polar opposites and the like seem absent from the skill-set of many young people.  We seem to insist that they learn these things the hard way.  Why?  Is it because we don’t know how to either?
  13. Many not-for-profits are phenomenally wasteful in how they spend their money and many people who work for them know how to steal from them as a profession but we don’t care.  Why?
  14. How is it that people put little or no effort into the things that matter in society but will spend an amazing amount of time watching videos of cats, sharing pictures of their oatmeal or losing their minds over how their favorite TV series ends?

Do these things matter or am I just over-sensitive?

Should we care that these represent symptoms of a society that is not ticking over as well as claimed by politicians or do we ignore them, saving our complaints and intention for action only when we are directly affected as opposed to when our neighbor is being pummeled instead of us?

If they matter, what can we do about them?

The Bottom Line

I’m a big believer in sharing thoughts and encouraging people to dialog about things with an eye towards taking measurable action.  Good intentions and thoughts are worthless without measurable results.

However, we can’t own everything that comes before us, even when it impacts us deeply.  Some of us who work hard to make a difference in the world need others to share the responsibility, especially when many who put little into society want to reap the harvest that comes from a better world.

It’s time for more people to be concerned about society and where it’s going …

… while it’s still a going concern.

In service and servanthood,

Harry

PS:You will note that I didn't mention things like privacy, surveillance and the like.  I believe that that fight is over.  You needed to care 25 years ago to have made a difference in regards to that subject.  Do you see what waiting accomplishes?  This is also, as I noted, just a subset of the things that went through my mind this week in the 5% of my brain that I have left over from the projects that consume it.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Statistics: The Mathematical Theory of Ignorance

Be able to analyze statistics, which can be used to support or undercut almost any argument. - Marilyn vos Savant

Statistics are no substitute for judgment. - Henry Clay

The #1206 “fiction” series continues …


On a bright, sunlit Sunday in a medium-sized city typical of western civilization, children ran excitedly around, happily exploring police cars, ambulances, MedEvac helicopters and the like.  It was the annual emergency preparedness presentation offered by the city to its citizens and as usual, a fairly large contingent of families had shown up.

“It was”, as one parent mused to another as they meandered by the exhibits, “a great way to kill a Sunday afternoon.”

At one of the exhibits, a group of families listened raptly as a government official explained the government’s latest advances in emergency planning.

“Two key things to remember”, he explained to the group, “Always make sure you have three days of food, medicine, water, toiletries and personal items on hand.”

“And”, he said as he held up his mobile phone, “Always make sure you keep this charged up.  We have an app that you can download that will allow you to receive alerts from us.  You can also use your phone to communicate with emergency officials and family members.”

A tall, thin, pale man wearing dark sunglasses was observing from the sidelines.  When the presenter finished speaking, the thin man approached him.

“Everything you say may be true”, he said to the presenter, “But we all know that in times of emergency, cell phone systems often get overloaded as they are designed for enhanced coverage but not for enhanced capacity. You saw this happen for 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other situations.  So it is likely that the people here won’t be able to make a call once an emergency event takes place because the networks will become saturated.  Some SMS messages may get through but data and voice communication may become spotty at best so your app won’t work when it is needed most.  As for duration, there have been many emergencies that were not resolved in three days.”

“Well”, replied the presenter, “That may be true but the likelihood of such an event is statistically unlikely.”

“Statistically unlikely”, the thin man said as if he were were digesting the words, “Interesting choice of words.  I will come back to that in a moment.  But back to the mobile systems, the average cell tower only has battery power for 8-16 hours so if a major power disruption of extended duration occurs, your mobile phone won’t be able to connect to anything anyway as the cell towers begin to die.  So people may be prepared for three days but their ability to communicate will cease long before this.”

The presenter frowned at the stranger, clearly agitated by the thin man with his observations.

The thin man pressed his point more firmly.

“Back to your observation regarding statistically unlikely”, he said emotionlessly, “Likelihood is only part of the equation for emergency preparedness when one must also consider the potential scale of such an event.”

“What does that mean?”, asked the presenter.

The thin man frowned at the presenter as if feeling a level of frustration with the lack of knowledge being shown by “the expert”.

“Well”, the thin man pointed out, “If I have an event that is statistically likely or unlikely, knowing the scale of the impact AND to a lesser extent, the cost of preparing for or preventing the event is what determines how much effort goes into mitigation of the event.  If I have an event that is extremely likely but has no impact of merit, then I don’t really care about preparing for it.  If the same event is also expensive to prepare for, then I really don’t want to prepare for it.”

He paused for a minute and glanced around him.  The crowd around him were staring at him in silence.

“Conversely”, continued the thin man, “If I have an event that is statistically unlikely, most emergency preparedness people use this fact as the reason to not prepare for it.  If this statistically unlikely event is also very expensive to prepare for, then emergency preparedness planners claim to have a reason to ignore it completely even if the potential event they are ignoring has catastrophic potential.”

“As they should”, interrupted the planner.

The thin man raised his hand.

“Patience”, he said, “Please allow me to continue.”

“No”, said the planner, “Statistical likelihood and cost are the key measures for emergency preparedness planning.”

The thin man began to respond but was again interrupted by the presenter.

“Give me one example where a major event was unlikely but happened with great significance or impact”, he demanded.

The thin man frowned slightly.

“The event you know as 9/11, the nuclear reactor accident in Japan, multiple suicides by pilots flying commercial aircraft, Hurricane Katrina,some of which I mentioned earlier”, began the thin man but he was interrupted again.

“But we couldn’t have anticipated those”, the presenter said, now clearly exasperated by the thin man.

“Of course you could have and many people in your industry actually evaluated the possibility of them”, replied the thin man, “But they chose the likelihood of it happening as the primary rationale for whether a response plan was needed.  They factored in cost plus the political unpopularity of acknowledging that such a thing could happen and then buried the problem as unnecessary to think about, talk about or prepare for.  To insult people even further, they claimed to be surprised by every major event that happened even though they had evaluated such events and discarded them based on the criteria I just mentioned.”

The presenter turned his attention back to the crowd of people around him.

“Thank you, folks”, he said to the now silent crowd, “I have a brochure here outlining what I shared with you today.”

Members of the crowd took a copy of the brochure and dispersed, some of them looking at the thin man uncertainly.

“What was that all about?”, the presenter demanded as he turned towards the thin man.

“Did I say anything that wasn’t true?”, asked the thin man.

“No”, replied the presenter, “But we don’t like to tell people these things.”

“So you are lying to them”, replied the thin man, “And in doing so, condemning them to some real problems when a large-scale disaster occurs.”

“Not entirely”, replied the presenter, “But putting the people in a panic doesn’t help either.”

“Informing them of reality always helps people”, the thin man replied softly but forcefully, “You need to consider them as your allies and not your enemies, now and in times of emergency.”

“Some people can’t handle truths like this”, replied the presenter.

“Possibly”, the thin man said, removing his sunglasses and looking intently into the eyes of the presenter, “But given that uninformed people become a potential liability when and not if a significant event occurs, I would rather inform the masses anyway instead of choosing to not tell anyone just because a small percentage of people aren’t mentally strong enough to deal with reality.”

The thin man’s eyes were dark and glittered in the sunlight.

The presenter suddenly felt uncomfortable as the thin man stared at him with a strange intensity.

“I think you should leave before I ask security to ask you to leave”, the presenter said.

“No need to be rude”, the thin man said as he put his sunglasses back on, “Someday you will be forced to admit the truth.  I hope that day doesn’t have other complexities that are difficult to deal with for you and your family.”

He turned and vanished into the crowd that was milling around.

The presenter stood in silence and watched him walk away.

He looked down at his cell phone, looked up at the cell tower he could see in the distance, thought about his own family and then pressed a speed dial button on the phone.

“Hi, honey”, he said when his wife answered, “We need to talk about a few things.”

To be continued.


© 2017 – Harry Tucker – All Rights Reserved

Blog Post Background / Supporting Data

The title of this post is a quote from Morris Kline.

Interestingly enough, this conversation actually took place a couple of years ago at an actual “emergency preparedness and planning expo”.

The facts cited by the “thin man” are true.  The possibility of disaster from a hurricane in New Orleans, the likelihood of an event like 9/11, the nuclear disaster in Japan, death of passengers by pilot suicide, and other items have all been evaluated and discarded for the reasons given – statistical unlikelihood, the cost to address and the political damage that could arise should such things be disclosed before they happen.

The facts regarding the cell phone system are also true.

How one prepares for an emergency, whether it be man-made, from Mother Nature, from outer space or from any other source, depends on how much knowledge one has.  And by the way, emergencies are not limited to large scale disasters in our society.  Emergencies can also come in the form of problems with relationships, in business, in personal health, in financial health and the like.

Probability of occurrence is only a small part of preparation.

Time, energy and money to prepare for or prevent the event are important considerations also.

The government’s public promotion of preparedness and how it considers risks ends there.

However, the scale and impact of the event is equally important when evaluating what one should prepare for.  Many times when we are overrun by something, it is because we knew there was a possibility of it occurring but we ignored it for the reasons discussed in this post.  It is the thing that we choose to ignore rather than a surprise that often presents the greatest difficulties for us.

Aristotle often referred to a life well-lived as one that finds the golden mean of excess.  For example, courage is the golden mean between rashness and cowardice.

The golden mean for emergency preparedness falls between doing nothing and exhibiting extreme paranoia.  It can only be found when one informs one’s self instead of relying on data presented by someone with an ulterior motive.

Are you informed for the reason of acquiring knowledge or do you only allow others to inform you based on their needs, intentions and motives?

The answer to this question will determine how prepared you are when, not if, a major event happens in our near or distant future.

Do you care?

How important is your family’s health and safety to you?

What do you need to do, if anything?

Series Origin

This series, a departure from my usual musings, is inspired as a result of conversations with former senior advisors to multiple Presidents of the United States, senior officers in the US Military and other interesting folks as well as my own professional background as a Wall St. / Fortune 25 strategy advisor and large-scale technology architect.

While this musing is just “fiction” (note the quotes) and a departure from my musings on technology, strategy, politics and society, as a strategy guy, I do everything for a reason and with a measurable outcome in mind. :-)

This “fictional” musing is a continuation of the #1206 series noted here.

Related musings: