No (prospect of) Pain, No (prospect of) Gain

Did you know just about every year, someone falls to their death from the Rim of the

Following the Park Ranger along the Kaibab trail.

Grand Canyon, but that no one has ever fallen off the trail while hiking into the Canyon?!  When I heard this – from the National Park Ranger who was guiding us down the one and a half mile South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge in the Canyon this past summer – I couldn’t help wondering why.  The trail is somewhat narrow – about six feet wide, with a sheer drop on one side.  But the Rim has a sturdy fence or stone wall to protect all those would be Ansel Adams-es.  Why do people fall at the Rim but are OK on the trail?  The explanation I settled on last summer came up in a conversation last week on a seemingly unrelated topic: how to grow a successful business.

In an elegantly furnished office on the 17th floor of a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper – about as culturally distant as you can get from the Grand Canyon – I found myself thinking about what the dangers of the South Kaibab Trail and the growth of my company have in common.  It all has to do with the recognition of risk.

I was meeting with a member of my board to discuss the projections for Investor Analytics’s growth.  We’ve increased revenue by 50% for each of the past two years, and I was describing the steps I and my senior management are taking to ensure that the growth continues all while maintaining and even improving the quality of our service.  He advised me to recognize that failure can occur at any point in our growth and not to let a few years of success lull me into thinking that it will ever be easier or less risky.  He suggested that by constantly being aware that failure can be “just a few footsteps away,” we will be more likely to achieve real success.  When you’re aware that there actually is danger – that’s precisely when you pay attention and are on heightened alert.  You work harder.  You pay more attention.  You keep your eye on the ball.  As soon as you think you’re safe – that you can’t lose your job or that the company is secure – that’s when you start getting complacent and end up with anemic growth.  This obviously goes only so far, as too much danger can be paralyzing.  It’s similar to stress: none makes you complacent, a little gets you moving and too much will kill you.

My thoughts again turned to the South Kaibab Trail and how every step my wife and kids made on our descent into the Canyon was deliberate and watchful.  When you know that you can fall, you’re more careful.  When you’re relaxed at the Rim with hundreds of other tourists, you’re just not paying as much attention.  And that’s when its most dangerous.  On the trail, we were all mindful: enough water, good hiking shoes, shady hats, single file.  When we took those first few steps beneath the Rim, we were nervous and watching every step.  But we quickly realized that the trail is wide enough and isn’t too steep.  “I can do this” each of us thought to ourselves.  And we did.

The conversation turned to how we’ve hired 11 people since Thanksgiving – almost a 50% increase in headcount.  I had told the entire staff when we started the hiring sprint: “Only hire people better than we already are.”  I made it a bit of a mantra.  While some people may be scared of such an idea, I explained that it’s the only way for a company to get better.  Consider the alternative: we hire people who aren’t as good as the people we already have, so the average quality goes down.  That’s obviously the wrong thing to do, and the only alternative is to do the opposite: hire people better than we are today.  The new people will teach us ways to improve what we’re doing, and in the process, we all get better at our game.  My board member recast my words into the terms he used before: it’s a trait of successful people that when challenged they meet that challenge.  When a successful person’s position is threatened — when they recognize the risk — he or she works harder to keep that position.  He predicted that we’ll see the same behavior from most if not all of IA’s employees as we hire these really good people: everyone will improve their game.  Just like on the trail, each person is (hopefully) thinking to themselves “I can do this.”

Without the realization of the risks you face, whether on the trail or in the office, you grow complacent.  You drop your guard.  You get sloppy.  When you’re reminded of the risks with every step, you concentrate more and work harder.  I finally came up with what I hope is a snappy summary of this idea.  Let me know what you think: “What you don’t know can’t help you.”

6 Responses to No (prospect of) Pain, No (prospect of) Gain

  1. Calex says:

    Oh, and the snappy summary is genius.

  2. Calex says:

    I’ve made that hike and I know exactly the awareness of danger you are talking about. I still marvel at how intimidating the first few steps below the rim were. When I was there, the path down was also covered in snow and ice with donkeys coming up toward us. The donkeys always took the inside of the trail, jack asses.

    You wrote a great article that is succinct, concise, and useful. Moral hazard is similarly related to this cognitive science concept of risk-awareness causing increased motor and cognitive efficiency. Your article is worth reading many times over.

  3. // When you know that you can fall, you’re more careful.  When you’re relaxed at the Rim with hundreds of other tourists, you’re just not paying as much attention.

    This be true in statistics around accidents and driving cars. It has been proven that the chances of having an accident on a familiar road such as one close to your home is higher than on a new route that is travelled less frequently. It all seems to fly with the same theme that familiarity of hazard breeds contempt for care.

  4. vishal gupta says:

    Thanks a lot Damian. This is really good article. i would summarize it “The Mantra of Alertness: Recognize Risk”

  5. Dipendu says:

    Nice correlation in the practical world. My summary of the idea would be “ALWAYS beware of the path chosen by you”

    • Thanks — I like your summary. It reminds me of my maritime scouting troop’s motto: “Navigare Necesse Est – Vivere Non,” which literally translates as “to navigate is necessary, to live is not,” but we prefer the more poetic “an unnavigated life is not worth living.”

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