The other day I was talking to a young chap who is trying to turn his life around. He was keen to recount an experience he had had the evening before. He had gone out for a few drinks and then on the way home he stopped in a park to finish off a beer that he was carrying. There were some drunk older women in the park who were smoking joints, a habit that he has been trying to break for some time. He sat down next to them and they offered him a smoke. He refused, finished his beer, talked with them for a little while, and then left.
He was very proud of the fact that he had been able to resist the temptation to smoke weed again. I understood where he was coming from but I was also a little exasperated. I asked him what he had to gain from putting himself in that situation. In other words, what was the potential upside?
Every situation has potential upsides and downsides. It behooves us to try and identify as many of these as we can and then evaluate the risk. If the gain from the upsides outweighs the risk of the negative result from the downsides then it might be beneficial to proceed.
Understand that for most of these types of decisions we manage to make these calculations in seconds, and often without really understanding what we are doing. In this way it is a subconscious act. You’re doing this sort of thing a lot but you’re don’t know that you’re doing it.
Other times it’s much clearer. Guiding a raft down a river with paying customers was full of these decisions. Upsides and downsides. Risk evaluation. What do I stand to gain versus what do I stand to lose? This is risk evaluation at its most basic. It is a very nuanced subject and something which I have studied and used for a long time in many professions, not least of all when I played poker for a living.
But back to my question to the young man the other day. I pressed him to give me the potential upside from that situation that he had created for himself. In a park, late at night, drinking beer with a bunch of drunk cougars, and them offering him joints as he had told them that he was trying to quit.
After thinking for a bit he came to the troubled realization that there was no potential upside at all and quite a bit of downside for him, particularly considering his current vulnerable personal situation. I asked him how many times he would have to test himself in this way before he failed and what that failure would mean for him. He was not happy with the ramifications of what we were discussing.
“You’ve always got to have an upside,” I told him. “If there’s no identifiable upside then you walk away. And even if you have a clear upside it has to be weighed against the potential downsides if things don’t go the way that you plan.”
It was a good discussion, a fruitful one even. He left with a much clearer understanding of what he needs to do at this point in time. He is making steps to improve himself, to make a man of himself.
Later that same day I began seeing articles on my Facebook feed from people who swing to the left. Something had happened at the alt right rally. I kept seeing images of Nazi flags. The fake news ratio was at an all time high but I couldn’t discount what I was seeing. I did some digging around and sure enough there were Nazi LARPers present at the event.
The discussion with the young man was fresh in my mind. I looked at the images and I wondered to my myself what was the potential upside of having these guys at an alt right event. I couldn’t think of a single upside. Not even a hint of one.
A hell of a lot of downsides though.