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Risk of Ruin

4 min

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Lucky fools do not bear the slightest suspicion that they may be lucky fools—by definition, they do not know that they belong to such a category.

- Nassim Taleb

Every day, I cross the road to go to the coffee shop by my office.

Since I go in the morning, there's usually not that much traffic. I could easily look both ways and cross if no one's coming.

But I don't.

Instead, I hit the walk signal and wait patiently for the light to change.


The benefit of crossing the road a few moments early is negligible. I'm going to get to the coffee shop no matter what. Getting to the door a tiny bit faster doesn't mean much to me.

But the potential cost is massive. After all, I could do a poor job of looking out and be killed by a car I didn't see.

And that would mean no more coffee at all. Pretty bad.

"But," you may be saying, "the chances of you looking both ways and missing an oncoming car and getting hit by it and being killed are very low. After all, I cross the street without the walk signal all the time, and I've never been killed."

And that, my friend, is the rub:

As Nassim Taleb says in Fooled By Randomness:

It does not matter how frequently something succeeds if failure is too costly to bear.

There's a concept in gambling known as "risk of ruin."

Your risk of ruin is the likelihood that you'll lose all your capital.

"Ruined" in this case means bankrupted below the threshold where you can play again.

In other words, you're out of the game...for good.

I think most of us would agree that carrying too much risk of ruin is bad. But how much is tolerable?

After all, even if you only go completely bankrupt very, very infrequently, it only needs to happen once for everything to come tumbling down.

People have a very hard time measuring this type of rare, cataclysmic risk. It's very easy for us to look back at our past experiences and tell ourselves that, because it hasn't happened so far, the worst can't happen.

I've quoted this elsewhere, but my absolute favorite way of illustrating this common error is the "Turkey Problem," here quoted from Taleb's Antifragile:

A turkey is fed for a thousand days by a butcher; every day confirms to its staff of analysts that butchers love turkeys “with increased statistical confidence.”
The butcher will keep feeding the turkey until a few days before Thanksgiving. Then comes that day when it is really not a very good idea to be a turkey.
So with the butcher surprising it, the turkey will have a revision of belief—right when its confidence in the statement that the butcher loves turkeys is maximal and “it is very quiet” and soothingly predictable in the life of the turkey.

Every day, the turkey wakes up and is not killed by the farmer.

As time goes by, he becomes increasingly confident that the farmer is his friend.

In fact, his certainty is at its absolute highest on Thanksgiving Day.

For every day of the turkey's life to that point, the farmer has been his friend. How could you convince the turkey otherwise? What possible evidence could you provide?

When we engage in risky activities and don't suffer the consequences - especially if this happens over and over again - we delude ourselves into believing the risk isn't there.

We cross the street, day after day, until we become convinced that we are invincible, that we could never miss the oncoming car, that we are careful enough to bear no risk whatsoever.

But think of it this way:

Every single person who is hit and killed while crossing the street thought the exact same thing.

They all thought they were being careful. They all thought there was no oncoming car.

Just because a risk has not harmed us in the past does not mean it is not present.

So think very carefully about risk of ruin when you encounter it in the wild.

Think very carefully about what you would need to gain in order to make such a risk - even if it is extremely rare - worth it to you.

And maybe, just maybe...

Wait for the signal to change, instead.




The Increasingly Wild World of School Board Meetings.

Writing in the Washington Post recently, Adam Laats, a professor of education at Binghamton University suny, suggested that these outbursts can “be understood as a politics of petulance. At moments when American culture has taken some progressive turn, conservatives have consistently blamed a single culprit for indoctrinating vulnerable youth with radical ideas: public schools.” The attraction of school-board meetings for such displays of frustration, Laats told me, is “that they are generally so accessible; there’s an open-mike aspect to them.

My wife has become increasingly involved with our kids school, and I can tell you first-hand that this phenomenon is real.

I have zero respect for people who do this, regardless of political affiliation. Disrupting the process is inherently anti-democratic, full stop.

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