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Action without Remorse

I had occasion to consider the issue of risk management this past weekend.

I don’t mean the management discipline practiced by insurance companies, consulting firms, investment companies and others. (I’ve worked with risk advisory professionals who can assess and measure risk with mathematical precision. No such expertise here.)

No, I’m referring to the risks that business people – all people, really – are forced to confront on an almost daily basis.  Risk is good, right?  After all, it seems that every political leader, business expert and self-help guru agrees that one’s success depends, to a considerable extent, on the willingness to assume risks.  Former Apple CEO John Scully  said that “people who take risks are the people you’ll lose against.”  Bobby Kennedy claimed that “only those who dare to fail can ever achieve greatly.”  Harvey Mackay argued, a bit more colorfully, that “even the turtle knows you have to stick your neck out to get ahead.”

Yeah, well, I stuck my neck out – took a risk – and it cost me.

I was hiking with two friends in the San Mateo Wilderness, a rugged area of the Santa Ana Mountains straddling Orange and Riverside counties.  We were having a great day tramping over hills, through oak woodlands and down a canyon to the backside of Tenaja Falls, a fairly impressive liquid display (at least for an arid region like Southern California).  The weather was cool, with an intermittent fog creating damp conditions. When we reached the falls, I left my friends and began to climb down to an area where I could get a better view (and more impressive photos) of the falls.  My granite destination was fairly steep and quite smooth, but I had climbed there on previous visits and didn’t think twice about my ability to navigate  it.

Bad idea.

As soon as I stepped onto the rock’s bedewed, glass-like surface, I slipped, landed on my ass, and immediately slid down the 12-15-foot face and into the pool at the base of the falls.  I escaped serious injury, but was soaked almost to my chest (with rainfall scarce this season, the pool was relatively shallow).  Oh well, a minor inconvenience: I can handle a few bruises and a long hike in wet clothes (not to mention the slight blow to my dignity).  But then I remembered that I was carrying both a digital camera and a recently repaired iPod Classic (the 160GB version).  Now I was upset.

My friends, of course, made the obvious point that I should be grateful I had avoided significant physical harm.  It was a $400 misstep, but it could have been much worse.  And I did learn – or more precisely, was reminded of – a valuable lesson: life is full of risk, and taking such risks can often result in failure. That’s why financial advisors caution against investing money you can’t afford to lose.

Of course, it’s one thing to weigh your options and then take a calculated risk.  Quite another to be simply careless. Like me in this instance.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but those tend to be the kind we remember.

Moreover, I remain convinced that taking chances is, more often than not, a worthwhile endeavor and even the preferred course.  In this I tend to agree with Helen Keller: “Security is mostly a superstition…Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Again, that doesn’t mean ignoring potential downsides.  One should approach risk with a full understanding of the potential consequences.  What’s the old saying?  Oh yeah:  “Look before you leap.” But you can never assemble all the facts, or be able to thoughtfully weigh all the options.  Sometimes you just have to summon to courage to go for it.

I also was reminded that it is essential to take full responsibility for your actions, for good or for ill.  That was easy in this case. No one prodded me into climbing around the waterfalls. I would have looked (and felt) silly blaming the rock, or the damp conditions, or the lack of some government warning sign. I was the one who chose to explore the area. I was the one who miscalculated my own dexterity. I was the one responsible for ruining my precious equipment.

There is no value in remorse.  No value in pondering “what ifs.”  There is only learning from our mistakes, taking responsibility, and moving on to the next risk.

And in my case, of course, buying a new iPod.

“When a man decides to do something he must go all the way, but he must take responsibility for what he does.  No matter what he does, he must know first why he is doing it, and then he must proceed with his actions without having doubts or remorse about them.

Look at me; I have no doubts or remorse.  Everything I do is my decision and my responsibility. The simplest thing I do, to take you for a walk in the desert for instance, may well mean my death.  Death is stalking me.  Therefore, I have no room for doubts or remorse.  If I have to die as a result of taking you for a walk, then I must die.

You on the other hand, feel that you are immortal, and the decisions of the immortal man can be cancelled or regretted or doubted.  In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is not time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.”

       – Don Juan Matus (to Carlos Casteneda) – “Journey to Ixtlan”