Two Become One

Thomas Crombie Schelling is one of the more interesting unsung heroes of the twentieth century. Awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in 2005 for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis” it was he who suggested a phone line between the leaders of America and Russia during the height of the Cold War so that they could talk to each other rather than take the ultimate sanction at times of uncertainty and push the button that would obliterate mankind.

History, alas, only really makes legends of people who save us from chaos, not those who prevent it from ever occurring in the first place.

As a man tasked with advising on how to save our species, Schelling thought a lot about why we do what we do. As a man who found it hard personally to kick the addiction he had to nicotine he also found it important when it came to saving himself.

In 1978 Schelling wrote a brief, fairly unresearched paper for the American Economic Association in which he considered the subject of his addiction through a very specific lens: the rationale of his decision making processes. As part of the National Academy of Sciences who deemed addiction irrational and helpless Schelling was compelled to conclude that it wasn’t and set about considering the problem in a different way.

He recounts a story about being a young boy, impressed enough with Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition that he decided to go to sleep that night with one too few blankets in an attempt to toughen him up against the cold. That decision he says was “made by a warm boy”. The boy who awoke every night too cold to retrieve the blanket used to curse the warm boy who by the following bedtime, got to make the decision again and invariably did in the same way!

“I didn’t realise then how many contests of that kind, some pretty serious, I would eventually have with myself, trying to stop smoking, to exercise, to meet a deadline or to turn off an old movie on TV”

Taking, first, the example of a “Christmas Savings” scheme which pays less return than a normal savings scheme but which serves to protect the saver against their future instincts he relates a series of similar situations in which people make decisions which indemnify themselves against Short Term desires in the future: hiring a personal trainer to prevent us from shirking the last two reps in the gym or placing our alarm clock across the room to stop us from going back to sleep.

These measures appear to be necessary, he concludes because of a continual struggle inside all of us between different decision makers who regard the decision from different points in time. Not just the person who stands there in the moment – although they often end up shouting the loudest. But also the person who will have to live with the decision in 5 seconds, and the person who will consider it tomorrow and the person who will have to pick up the pieces in 2 months from now and the person who may have to live with the memory for years.

So what can we do to intervene? Are we powerless as this struggle rages in inside ourselves – merely crucibles for battle to take place? I believe not. As someone who had to motivate himself to get up every morning and embrace short term failure on a daily basis, I believe I learnt what it takes to intervene and take control. And the best part of it is that it doesn’t inherently involve becoming someone different.

Crucially, it doesn’t involve, as many self-help books would have it, overcoming your fear of failure. Indeed to try and deny our fear of failure is to deny what makes us human. It is to try and remove the very force which drives the Lincolns, Dysons, Edisons and Ungars on to win. Fear of failure is the most motivating force we have… we just have to redefine our definition of failure. Specifically we have to make failure a Long Term phenomenon.

As a poker player, if your greatest fear is the pain of losing a pot, well then you’ll probably never play a hand. But if you fear not making your rent at the end of the month well then that fear of Long Term failure will keep you playing late into the night while you enjoy all the positive Expectation offered by inebriated tourists who will, of course, sometimes win.

Fearing the pain of regret more than the pain of rejection means taking decisions because of the thrill of the cheer rather than the fear of the boo. It means having a goal to aim for and allowing the achievement of that goal to become what is important. It means turning up the volume on the future you and fearing the pain that they will experience if they fail more than the pain which the present you will feel if they do.

“The definition of hell is dying and the person that you are getting to meet the person that you could’ve been.” Anon.  That’s fear of Long Term failure. And that’s a mindset that in any other context we would call driven and ambitious.

We’ve hosted a struggle between the person we are now and the person we’ll be in the future every day of our lives. Whenever we make any decision, in fact. And the reason that we have taken all the risks we ever have is because at some point our future selves have shouted loudest and we’ve glimpsed the future that they’re going to have to live in. And we’ve found ourselves asking a crucial question…

“What if I never…?”

“What if I never ask her for a drink? What if I never set up on my own? What if I never buy a property? What if I never take this meeting? What if I never tell him how I really feel? What if I never try this new way? What if I never take this opportunity? What if I never seize the moment? What if I never do any of the things I talk about and plan…?  What will my life look like then?”

The fear of meeting the “person we could have been” has spurred a thousand of us to take a million risks. Not all of them successful. Not all necessarily even good. But at least we’ve taken action. Because in the words of John F Kennedy “There are risks and costs to a programme of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of long term inaction.” Just ask IBM. Or Western Union. Or Xerox. Or any of the men and women whose names we’ll never know because they never tried and failed, or succeeded, to achieve the dreams they dreamed of or live the life they never got to know. Because they bought into an illusion: the illusion that the Long Term never comes and that this decision, now, is all that really matters and failure would be a risk they can’t afford to take.

There are risks and consequences associated with Short Term action. But they are not as great as the Risks and Consequences of Long Term inaction. We know this. For this is the reason we do anything.

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