DRMacIver's Notebook

Safety as an enabler of growth

Safety as an enabler of growth

My friend Alex Chan recently wrote about how one of the big advantages of being rich is that the rich can afford to make risky investments:

Being rich gives you a safety net to make bad investments, which helps you find more good ones. Over time, the rich don’t just spend less money, they find new ways to earn more money. In terms Samuel Vimes would understand: they don’t just invest in a pair of sturdy boots, they invest in experimental boot-making startups.

As Alex points out, this ties in to my argument that you should try bad things. You can only try bad things if you have the resources to ensure that failure is no big deal.

For some bad things, this isn't an issue, but for things which have a relatively high cost (financial, time, or otherwise), being poor (or even just not rich!) blocks them off from you. This is particularly egregious in the examples that Alex points out, where the lack of financial security is the very thing that prevents you from gaining more financial security.

This is a general pattern that repeats in many other contexts. In order to grow, it needs to be safe to try things, and lacking the thing that you want to grow is what makes it unsafe.

This is often connected with learning. The fastest way to learn something is to do something, but if doing something can go catastrophically wrong then you're not going to risk it, so whole avenues of learning are blocked off for you.

As well as financial, two common places this occurs are social and emotional safety (which can be tightly connected, but also can fail independently in their own way). There's all the literature on psychological safety about how feeling safe in your team is an enabler of success, because people are more able to propose ideas and learn from them. This ties in to what I was saying yesterday about permission: One of the key features of psychological safety in a group environment is the way it gives you permission to experiment and try things that might not work.

Another type of safety is emotional safety. For a lot of us the insides of our own heads are not safe. As I wrote about in a crash course in having feelings, one of the key steps to emotional growth is getting to a point where you can have feelings (especially negative ones) without being overwhelmed by them. As long as your feelings are dangerous to you, it's impossible to experiment with and learn about them, and this stops you from growing emotionally.

There are a couple of insidious traps that one can fall into that can make an otherwise safe situation unsafe:

In both of these cases, the cost of trying things is raised considerably: In the first, the cost of failure is made much worse. In the second, success itself becomes the costly thing. Either way, you have found yourself in an environment where trying things cannot be safe, because success has become too high stakes.