That time it actually was a snake. A jumping pitviper, genus Atropoides.

Not everything is a snake

Facing fears and avoiding risk blindness

In a past life, I worked logistics for a scientific expedition in the rainforests of Northern Honduras. I made sure people were fed, sheltered, and had the transport and guides they needed to do their research.

One day, at the beginning of the summer, I was setting up ropes on a dangerous trail. I was bracing myself on a muddy slope, machete in one hand, shaking small trees with the other, seeing if they were strong enough to support the guide rope. As I optimistically shook a sapling, my eyes refocused, and a yard from my hand lurked a coiled up pitviper.

Everything was fine, but for the next few days, my mind saw snakes in every branch, root, or twig I came across. I was jumpy, on edge, and needed extra rum to calm my nerves — Nicaraguan, of course.

Evolutionarily this makes sense. We adapt to negative signals much faster than positive ones; it’s survival. You don’t want to be burnt or poisoned more than once, and a near miss with a predator should swiftly make you reconsider your life choices.

As much as we like to think that we’re highly evolved beings, we are still subject to these primitive brain functions. We’re hardwired to avoid loss; to seek safety, normalcy, and comfort.

As a company, maybe you tried an idea that didn’t work. Was it a bad idea? Maybe. But maybe it was the implementation, maybe it was timing, or maybe your intuition was slightly off. It’s not uncommon to hear “we tried that, no way it’ll work”, only to see another company skyrocket with a similar idea. These blindspots, caused by our loss adverse primitive brains, can be severely limiting, and can leave us open to disruption.

As an individual, we can be faced with difficult and challenging situations: a hard conversation that didn’t go well, a project that stretches you, or a speech that landed like a lead balloon. It’s completely understandable to want to withdraw and to avoid similar situations in the future. But maybe next time it’ll be different. Maybe the thing that was actually difficult, wasn’t what you thought it was. And maybe even if it was hard, it wasn’t all bad. After all, being out on the edge is where you learn and grow the most *.

Having awareness of how our brain works can help us overcome some of these instinctive behaviors. So, if you feel yourself avoiding an idea or an opportunity similar to something you experienced before, ask yourself: Was it really a snake? Did I actually get bitten? Or was it just a twig.


The author accepts no responsibility for the outcomes of any encounter involving a snake.