Recently I was climbing a remote mountain near my home.
On this day, the route that I took up this particular remote mountain was ill advised. It didn’t look all that bad from the bottom; it just looked like the most direct route up the mountain. But after I ascended the first ridge, it became clear that I had put myself in a bad place. I’m a veteran mountain runner, with nearly 30 years of mountain running experience. But on this day, the route I chose was a serious mistake.
It’s a safe bet to say that every mountain in Colorado has been climbed many times. There’s no such thing as a first ascent on Colorado peaks anymore. But on this day there were a couple of points where I wondered to myself whether any human being had ever been in precisely the position where I was in at that moment.
If you find yourself in place like this in 2018, chances are you’re in a very remote, exciting place. And your life is probably in danger. Because today, with 7 billion-plus people on the blue orb, if no human has been where you are, there’s probably a reason for it.
I remember hearing an adage about plane crashes that they don’t happen because of just one mistake. There are fail-safes in place to ensure that a single mistake does not cause a plane crash. Crashes happen when pilots and their co-pilots make a series of novel and interesting mistakes in sequence that no other pilots have ever made before. When the mistakes happen in a sequence that the safety mechanisms do not anticipate and therefore cannot prevent.
I think the same is often true of other accidents, including mountain deaths. Mountain deaths don’t happen when you make just one mistake. It’s usually when you make a series of mistakes. You climb a mountain that is beyond your experience level. And then you get off-route, and then you decide to take a “short cut” down. And then you find yourself in a series of places where the only way out is on a cliff with unstable talus or loose scree.
I try to look at each decision on the mountain as unique. I try not to let a prior bad decision influence my decision-making about what to do next. But this particular day, I just kept making bad decision after bad decision. I was path breaking in a way that I’m not normally accustomed. I was path breaking in a way that I prefer not to do.
I like to go to remote places in the mountains, but I don’t like to take huge risks when I do. I like to explore, but not to the extreme where there is anything higher than a totally improbable risk of serious danger.
Venturing off the beaten path gets good PR. Perhaps undeservedly good PR.
I think this is because of survivorship bias. People tell heroic tales of those who take great risks and are rewarded. It doesn’t always work out that way.
A few years ago, I got a pair of Google Glass. For a brief shining moment, this was the cool new thing in tech. People would stop me on the street and ask to use it. I thought I was being novel and ahead of the game. I was new to the community of startups and technology, and I wanted to signal that I was adventurous and “in the know” when it came to tech.
I should have bought Bitcoin instead.
On a dime, the world turned on Google Glass, and decided that this was no longer the coolest thing. It became apparent that this device was a buggy, wasteful, and a grandiose symbol of the worst forms of perpetual tech distraction. People who wore them became known as “Glassholes.”
My fancy (and expensive) new toy quickly came to signify the opposite of what I had wanted to signal.
I wanted to signal I that I was not afraid to take a risk. I took a gamble on being the first to adopt a new technology, and I ended up wasting my money on a form of technology that wasn’t helpful or useful to me at all. Plus, it made me look like a fool.
And then there is the lesson of Thalidomide.
According to a 2009 article by Bara Fintel, Athena T. Samaras, and Edson Carias.
Thalidomide first entered the German market in 1957 as an over-the-counter remedy, based on the maker’s safety claims. They advertised their product as “completely safe” for everyone, including mother and child, “even during pregnancy,” as its developers “could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat.” By 1960, thalidomide was marketed in 46 countries, with sales nearly matching those of aspirin.
Around this time, Australian obstetrician Dr. William McBride discovered that the drug also alleviated morning sickness. He started recommending this off-label use of the drug to his pregnant patients, setting a worldwide trend….
However, this practice can also lead to a more prevalent occurrence of unanticipated, and often serious, adverse drug reactions. In 1961, McBride began to associate this so-called harmless compound with severe birth defects in the babies he delivered. The drug interfered with the babies’ normal development, causing many of them to be born with phocomelia, resulting in shortened, absent, or flipper-like limbs. A German newspaper soon reported 161 babies were adversely affected by thalidomide, leading the makers of the drug—who had ignored reports of the birth defects associated with the it—to finally stop distribution within Germany. Other countries followed suit and, by March of 1962, the drug was banned in most countries where it was previously sold.
Obviously, this is horrible and a parent’s worst nightmare. Well-intentioned parents took medication they were told was safe and ended up giving their children life-altering and often fatal birth defects.
It’s perhaps callous to compare these three distinct phenomena, but they all—with varying degrees of seriousness—touch on the question of “when is the safe and wise to try something new?”
There is no universal rule for how to deal with novel risks, of course. You could be the first person to try a new computer game and the risk of serious harm would be next to nil, and you could be the millionth person to try base-jumping and you could still get splattered against a mountainside.
But while there is no universal rule, there are some game-theoretic insights that may apply. While on the mountain and then afterward, I was reminded of the fantastic book by Kevin Leland, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.
According to the book, for all the praise many people want to give to those who innovate, it is those who strategically observe and exploit that fare the best.
Being the first to go somewhere or adopt a new technology is highly overrated. As a general rule, the authors say, watch where others go, see which strategies seem to work, and then copy based on what you observe. That’s the meta-strategic path.
Standing on the side of a cliff, that thought resonated with me. It’s fun to explore novel and interesting places. But in the moment where you are truly exploring and trail blazing where no one has gone before, you appreciate more than ever why some prior strategic reconnaissance would have been helpful.