Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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Superheroes don't cry wolf

Published: 03 Oct 2012

I previously wrote about my secret, how to be a superhero by merely acknowledging danger. That’s it. There’s danger, point to it. If you do that you’ll be far ahead of the crowd. However, not all dangers require action. There are acceptable risks and acceptable losses, but how do we know which are which?

Acknowledging dangers and balancing precariously

We all have a balancing act we maintain in life. I want to accomplish and do so many things. I want to own a Lotus Evora. I can’t, though. Not right now. I could, but my family needs financial stability more than I want a Lotus. More reasonably put, I want to simply have the energy and discipline each day to knock out each of my goals. Life, often times, does not allow this. I have to balance life with desires.

Wolves pop up every day in life. Sometimes they simply prowl, other times they ravage our entire flock. If we reacted to every wolf we would never have the time or energy to accomplish the things we set out to do. We would be ran ragged, stuck in place and in misery.

Is it ok to let the wolf attack? Is it ok to even let the wolf take a sheep or two? Yes, it is. There are acceptable losses in every aspect of life.

Acceptable Losses aren’t free

If you accept that acceptable losses are present, that a wolf will come and snatch a sheep or two away, then what next? Do you abandon all protective measures? Do you stop protecting your life? Absolutely not.

Each time an acceptable loss is tallied, morale and momentum suffer. It’s inevitable and even if the loss is known ahead of time it still hits hard. Usually, only when the loss is actually recorded the emotions start to fire. The frustration and despair are often more damaging than the actual loss.

Progressing through quicksand

I’m a parent now and my children are both at the age where reasoning starts to manifest itself. My daughter is nearly 4, learning that logic is merely something that exists in the world. My son turns 6 next week and is understanding consequences and logical outcomes. He chains together scenarios and attaches consequences at each point.

Witnessing this, and helping usher along these thoughts, has been extremely rewarding for me. Children always cry wolf. When they first encounter some danger, it is at that moment, the worst danger imaginable.

Experience teaches us that some negative consequences are better than any alternative. There are acceptable losses. Without that experience such decisions are horrifying.

Crying wolf isn’t just claims of imaginary creatures; there may be a wolf. Ignoring the wolf and accepting the consequences may be the best course of action, even if you lose a sheep.

What are acceptable losses?

The damage that comes from constant acceptable losses accumulates. It should be done deliberately, with forethought. Otherwise it’s nothing more than unacceptable acceptable losses.

In hindsight, it’s easy to say there are no acceptable losses. The leisure of studying history removes the stress and tension of the moment. Real life deprives us of that ability, so we have to make quick decisions to determine what is acceptable.

How do we make those decisions? How do we cope with the consequences?

Trust your gut, except when you can’t.

I trust my intuition when it speaks to me. This doesn’t absolve me of analysis after the fact. In fact, any decision I make that is based in a gut feeling gets extra scrutiny when things settle down. At the core, I listen to my intuition and try to be receptive. Sometimes my gut is silent.

When intuition can’t be relied on, traditional decision making comes into play. Quantify the loss if you do nothing. Quantify the resource expenditure to stop the impending disaster. Balance them out and act accordingly.

You may not always win, but you can be victorious.

Whenever I engage in something, I try to setup victory conditions. This is especially important when you are fighting a losing battle. You’ve quantified the risks and rewards, it’s time to engage and protect, or sacrifice, a sheep. This is not a passive activity. It requires careful engagement.

Discover your victory condition; that final scenario you can live with. Accept it and whatever losses comes with it. Let it happen and move on.

Setting the bar unreasonably high just leads to injuries. Succeed when you can but fail responsibly when you can’t.