Be safe and feel safe

A passage with profound implications:

“Adult cannot assume that the environment is safe, so adult natural behaviours exhibit a wider range of calibrated amounts of risk management. As with children,hide and watch is our reaction to dangerous-seeming and volatile situations (gather information passively while remaining out of sight). Colloquialisms such as “dip a toe in the water,” “poke with a stick,” “stir the pot” and “stir up a hornet’s nest” are increasingly bolder modes of risk-managed exploration. The safer we feel, the more actively and aggressively we explore.”

This is from Venkatesh Rao’s Tempo.

I’m not going to tout the virtues of mitigating risk. Obviously, protecting against risk and uncertainty is a key concern. But it’s not the whole game. At the same time, we want to encourage exploratory behaviours. Because only from exploration, from aggressive trial and error, does innovation and progress originate.

And if we take Venkat’s statement to be true, that a greater feeling of safety translates into more exploration, there’s an obvious takeaway:

As an individual or organisation, if you want to get better, you need to feel safer.

There are two ways to increase your sense of safety. The first being more practical, the second being of a more philosophical nature.

Option 1: BE SAFE

Have multiple income streams. A healthy reserve of fuck you money. Hold no debt to any person or institution. Maintain a low overhead. Possess economically valuable skills whose demand outstrips the supply you can provide.

If you can do/have the above, you will feel safe. Anything bad that could happen to you will have only minimal consequences*. You can offer a strong response to any risk or threat.

Option 2: FEEL SAFE

Be comfortable with risk and uncertainty. To do that, you have to make explicit the consequences of exploratory behaviours. Document the worse thing that could possible happen: bankruptcy, skillset going obsolete etc. On a deeper level, this means practicing acceptance (or surrender) to the turns of fate. Otherwise known as amor fati. A philosophical reversal of your attitude to misfortune.

The first option is attained only by a select few. The second option is the only option left to the majority.

If you’re unable or unwilling to walk the latter path, then you close the door on a feeling of safety and security. And in the process, you rule out the exploratory behaviours which are your only salvation. The only way for you to go from feeling safe to actually being safe.

*I’m excluding personal tragedies like death, serious illness, bereavement, mental health issues etc.


This post originally appeared on Phronetic, Matthew Sweet’s daily blog about mastery, strategy and practical philosophy. If you liked it, check out Disconnected: Ideas and Provocations, Matt’s first book.