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Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    What in your life can you control?

    Not much, as it happens. In fact, most of the areas we feel most in control of are riddled with uncertainty and unpredictability: business, health, parenting, finances. In a lot of cases – like picking which stocks to invest in – the average person actually underperforms random selection. That is, when it comes to picking stocks, a monkey with a dart board and a copy of the stock page can do a better job picking winning stocks than most ostensibly informed humans.

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    Why is that? In the case of selecting stocks, it’s because while a random selection has a 50/50 chance of going up or down, we humans tend to invest our choices with emotional weight that keeps us in markets too long or too short – unlike randomness, we act on hunches, fears, and hopes. More generally, we tend to be poor judges of risk and uncertainty, yet we have brains that are more than willing to impose patterns and meaning that cover up rather than address such unknowns. So we act as if we knew what we were doing, and as if we had some level of control over the situation, when really we’re at the mercy of luck – and the more uncertain the situation, the more likely we are to act as if we were in control.

    The (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    Consider this situation: Let’s pretend you have an infant girl, and one night you get a call at 1 am from a friend across town who desperately needs your help. As you prepare to drive across town to meet your friend, you have a choice – leave the child sleeping in her crib, or bundle her into a car seat and take her with you.

    For most parents, this is a no-brainer – of course you’re going to take her with you. What if something happens in the house while you weren’t there, like an electrical fire? What if someone broke into the house and kidnapped her? What if she stopped breathing?

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    The reality, though, is that the single riskiest thing you could do to an infant at 1:00 am is to take her driving in a car. Far more people die every year in car accidents than in all the potential risks to your child alone at home combined. In your car, she’ll be exposed to danger from poor road conditions, mechanical failure, and worst of all, other drivers – who at 1:00 am are likely to either have been drinking or be exhausted, neither of which makes them safe to be sharing the road with.

    But with our child with us, we feel in greater control than if she was left at home, unattended. There’s no rational basis to this feeling – it’s entirely grounded in emotion, a poor comprehension of risk, and an over-assessment of the degree to which our own presence has any significance.

    Our failure to understand risk and the role chance plays in our lives is profound and cuts across a wide swath of our lives. Consider the efforts we make to assure our children grow up with decent values – and how often parents raise kids that completely reject their values. Or consider how many businesses go under every year, and how many of them were headed up by people with strong qualifications, solid training, and a clear sense that they knew what they were doing. Or, in the financial sector, consider how many stock brokers, financial analysts, and others are caught entirely by surprise by massive shifts in the financial sector, like the recent collapse of the credit system – if there were really a pattern, and people really understood it, they all should have seen it coming.

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    Dealing with uncertainty

    If we’re really bad at understanding risk, and if we’re led astray by a mistaken sense of control, then what should we do? Should we just throw up our hands and accept whatever Fate throws at us? Should we lock ourselves in our homes, wrap ourselves in padding, and huddle in a corner until our lives mercifully end?

    Fatalism and despair are, thankfully, over-reactions to the uncertainty of life. As it happens, there are quite a few things we do control, even in the midst of uncertainty. For instance, while even the best poker players are largely at the mercy of luck as to what cards they hold, good players can control enough of the situation – their facial gestures, how much they bet, when to fold, etc. – to come out of even several lousy hands in a row ahead (at least sometimes).

    While we can’t eliminate uncertainty, there are ways we can act to minimize its effects – at least in some instances. If the Moon spins out of its orbit and collides with the Earth tomorrow, all bets are off. But for more everyday sorts of uncertainly, it pays to:

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    • Be prepared. Good planning leaves enough “slack” to adapt readily to unforeseen circumstances. For example, many people keep a “rainy day fund” to make sure they’re prepared for an illness, loss of a job, accident, or other emergency.
    • Diversify. Balancing high-risk options with low-risk ones can help make sure that a sudden freak occurrence wreck everything. It’s the classic “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” theory – balance your investment portfolio, hedge your bets, pursue multiple medical treatments (where possible), and so on.
    • Get a second opinion. Or a 100th. James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds shows how the cumulative voice of the many can be more accurate than any one individual, even an expert. Whenever undertaking a risky endeavor, make sure to consult as many people as possible – and find a way to split the difference. Get another doctor’s opinion before embarking on a course of treatment, Discuss investment options with more than one financial advisor. Get feedback from a range of employees before instituting a radical new policy or process. By sampling a variety of people, you’ll have an opportunity to “cancel out” conflicting worldviews that, in most cases, have little to do with the reality at hand.
    • Create habits. Uncertainty often leads us astray most when we respond directly to fluctuating and random events. For instance, maybe you go to Vegas with a $300 budget to spend on slot machines, but when you see a particular jackpot is up to $12 million you throw caution to the winds and drop $800 into the machine. Creating habits that you stick to religiously can help minimize the desire to act based on emotional factors that have little to do with the actual level of certainty or uncertainty involved.
    • Recognize risk. There is a far higher injury rate for softball players than for base jumpers. Why? Because softball is seen as a safe sport and so players take few precautions, while base jumpers train heavily, invest in solid equipment, and approach the risk inherent in their sport seriously. When you recognize risk and respect it, you act smarter – which helps you to stay more in control when that’s possible, and to minimize harm when control isn’t possible.

    Life itself is inherently uncertain – and that’s a good part of its beauty. That uncertainty shouldn’t paralyze us, it should energize us – it should make us doubly aware of our surroundings and doubly appreciative of our successes. By ignoring risk – or pretending it doesn’t exist – we make ourselves stupider, which ironically leads us to act in riskier ways. By respecting and even embracing uncertainty, we can often come out even further ahead than if we tried – usually in vain – to control inherently uncontrollable situations.

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    Last Updated on October 18, 2018

    10 Key Characteristics of a Highly Successful Entrepreneur

    10 Key Characteristics of a Highly Successful Entrepreneur

    When it comes to starting your own business and pursuing your dream of becoming an entrepreneur, it can be advantageous to go all in and embrace the flexibility of finally quitting your day job.

    Keep in mind, though, that it takes a special kind of person to take the business world by storm: a person who has cultivated the key characteristics of entrepreneurial success.

    People with these characteristics are likely to succeed, whereas people without them have difficulty moving forward with even the most brilliant business ideas.

    These characteristics of an entrepreneur are so important that I’ve decided to cover all 10 of them in detail so that you can start your business with your best foot forward.

    1. Successful Entrepreneurs Practice Discipline

    Plenty of business experts claim that you can’t get anywhere as an entrepreneur without vision or creativity, but that’s simply not the truth. Instead, the one quality that no entrepreneur can be successful without is discipline.

    To build an idea into a business, you have to have the discipline to spend time slogging through the least fun parts of running a business (like the bookkeeping), rather than taking that time to do something fun.

    Andrew Carnegie, one of the most financially successful Americans of all time, grew up working dull and difficult jobs in factories. Despite going to bed hungry some nights, he continued doing his best work. He was eventually hired by a railroad company and continued to move up the ladder until starting his own successful businesses. Carnegie is a fine example of an entrepreneur dedicated to discipline and hard work. He truly earned his dreams of prosperity and success.

    When you’re the boss, there’s no one to keep you at work except yourself — and there’s no short-term consequences for skipping out early.

    Sure, if an entrepreneur plays hooky enough he knows that the business just won’t happen, but it’s very hard to convince someone that ‘just this once’ won’t hurt (and to keep ‘just this once’ from becoming a daily occurrence).

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    2. Successful Entrepreneurs Keep Calm

    Things go wrong when you run your own business.

    Most entrepreneurs go through crises with their businesses — and more than a few wind up with outright failures on their hands. But when you’re responsible for a business, you have to be able to keep calm in any situation. Any other reaction — whether you lose your temper or get flustered — compounds the problem.

    Instead, a good entrepreneur must have the ability to keep his cool in an emergency or crisis. It may not make the problem easier to solve, but it certainly won’t make it harder.

    Honestly, losing your calm is a quick path to becoming the kind of person who gives up in the face of adversity. Instead giving in to frustration, remember classic entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin.

    Franklin kept his calm as he experimented and tweaked his inventions again and again in pursuit of success. He didn’t give up during his many failures – he chose to innovate. You can choose innovation, too.

    If an entrepreneur can handle failure without frustration or anger, s/he can move past it to find success.

    3. Successful Entrepreneurs Pay Attention to Details

    Restricting your attention to the big picture can be even more problematic than ‘sweating the small stuff.’

    As an entrepreneur, unless venture capital has magically dropped out of the sky, a small expense can be a killer. It’s attention to detail that can make a small business successful when it has competition and it’s attention to detail that can keep costs down.

    Attention to detail can be difficult to maintain — going over ledgers can be tedious even when you aren’t trying to pay close attention — but keeping your eye on a long-term vision is just asking for a problem to sneak in under a radar.

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    After a business grows, an entrepreneur might be able to hire someone to worry about the details. In the beginning, though, only one person can take responsibility for the details.

    Skeptical about the importance of details? Look no further than Howard Schultz, who grew a small coffee shop called Starbucks into one of the most globally successful coffee businesses in the world through his extreme attention to detail.

    He is famous for taking all aspects of growing a business into account, paying attention not only to financially smart business decisions, but also focusing on socially responsible business decisions. Details can take you far.

    4. Successful Entrepreneurs Embrace Risks

    No entrepreneur has a sure thing, no matter how much money s/he stands to earn on a given product. Even if a product tests well, the market can change, the warehouse can burn down and a whole slew of other misfortune can befall a small business.

    It’s absolutely risky to run a business of your own and while you can get some insurance, it’s not like most investment options. Even worse, if something does go wrong, it’s the entrepreneur’s responsibility — no matter the actual cause. In order to deal with all of that without developing an ulcer, you have to have a good tolerance for risk.

    You don’t need to channel your inner frat boy and take on absolutely stupid risks, but you need to know just how much you can afford to risk — and get a good idea of how likely you are to lose it. If the numbers make you uncomfortable, the risk is too great.

    Embracing risks is essential for growth and additional success, as well. Walt Disney, for example, could have stayed comfortable with his advances in the film and animation industries, but decided to expand his brand with a new dream: a theme park that soared above the competition. Without taking this risk, the incredibly successful Disney theme park empire would never have come about.

    An entrepreneur has to be willing to accept pretty big risks, with some level of comfort.

    5. Successful Entrepreneurs are Balanced

    You can take any characteristic too far. There’s a point at which attention to detail can become obsession or calm can become unemotional response.

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    As an entrepreneur, you have to be able to balance your characteristics, getting the most of them without going over the edge. But balance for an entrepreneur goes far beyond keeping your characteristics in check, though.

    Just as an entrepreneur doesn’t have a boss to keep them at work when necessary, they don’t have one to send them home when they’re done. If you are working for yourself, you have to decide how to balance your work and home life — and if you have a day job to add into the equation, balance just gets more complicated.

    Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs out there, understands the importance of balance. Winfrey has a lot going on; she runs her own media kingdom, acts, produces films, publishes print, and more. In an interview with Fast Company,[1] she talks about her efforts to balance priorities and self care, saying that she must ask herself what is truly important in each limited day.

    You may or may not have as much on your plate as Oprah, but learning how to balance whatever you have going on in life will certainly help you farther along down the road as you learn to be a great entrepreneur.

    6. Successful Entrepreneurs are Passionate and Motivated

    In order to develop any of the above characteristics, you must have a foundation of passion. Staying disciplined day after day during the building of your business takes unrivaled motivation.

    Before you start any business, ask yourself if you can sustain true excitement about your idea during even the darkest days ahead of you. If the answer is yes, then good for you! Nurture your natural motivation by taking these action steps throughout your business journey:

    • Commit to making short and long-term goals. Check in with them often to stay on task.
    • Have a plan in place for the inevitable days when you feel discouraged. Make a list of things that will help keep you motivated and focused.
    • Share your ideas with trusted individuals who are just as excited as you are. They will help keep your enthusiasm rolling even when you are feeling down.

    By being prepared for apathetic days and holding fast to your authentic passion, you can actually enjoy your journey to success.

    7. Successful Entrepreneurs Adapt

    Remember this one word: flexibility. Seasoned entrepreneurs know that change is not only a part of life, but also a part of the business world. Expect change and choose to adapt.

    As a new entrepreneur, it will be tempting to cling to your original business plan with no exceptions, even if you notice it isn’t working. Good entrepreneurs know that it’s okay to make smart, informed changes in order to ensure efficiency.

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    8. Successful Entrepreneurs are Marketing and Sales Experts

    No matter what kind of business you are starting, a knowledge of marketing and sales will save you many headaches. A passion for creating a beautiful handmade lifestyle product is not enough to run a successful lifestyle brand; it is critical that you understand key business principles in addition to your natural skills or great product line.

    Not sure how to start? Taking business courses is a great idea, but you can also easily brush up on sales and marketing through free online resources. Check out these 10 Sales Skills Everyone Should Master To Be Successful to begin now.

    9. Successful Entrepreneurs Have Strong Money Management

    Along with sales and marketing skills, money management is a very useful tool in the box of the entrepreneur. Understanding how to best manage your money can be the difference between early success and early failure in the business world.

    If money management isn’t your strongest skill, prepare to hire a financial expert to help you with any tricky business that comes up. Financial guidance and knowledge is never a bad idea.

    10. Successful Entrepreneurs Ask Questions and Continually Improve

    Pride is a natural human quality, but it’s important to humbly conduct some constructive criticism every now and again on both yourself as a leader and your new business as a whole.

    Assess how things are going and be willing to make positive changes if necessary. Here’re 15 ways to cultivate lifelong learning.

    If you are always improving, then how can you ultimately fail?

    The Bottom Line

    Let me remind you of one important fact: the qualities of an entrepreneur listed here are not exclusively available to some people and elusive to others.

    Although some people may have natural strengths and weaknesses, these qualities can be learned by anyone interested in taking up the entrepreneurial challenge. It might not be easy to change old habits, but it is absolutely possible to cultivate these characteristics in yourself.

    Whether you’re a business owner or an aspiring entrepreneur, with hard work, you can train yourself to develop the qualities that truly determine the entrepreneurial spirit and future success.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

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