“It may readily be conceived that if men passionately bent upon physical gratifications desire greatly, they are also easily discouraged; as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach that object must be prompt and easy or the trouble of acquiring the gratification would be greater than the gratification itself. Their prevailing frame of mind, then, is at once ardent and relaxed, violent and enervated. Death is often less dreaded by them than perseverance in continuous efforts to one end.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
In an effort to remind traders of the hard work needed to trade right, we include the address below from Charles Sanford. It was given when he was Chairman of Bankers Trust:
From an early age, we are all conditioned by our families, our schools, and virtually every other shaping force in our society to avoid risk. To take risks is inadvisable; to play it safe is the counsel we are accustomed both to receiving and to passing on. In the conventional wisdom, risk is asymmetrical: It has only one side, the bad side. In my experience — and all I presume to offer you today is the observations drawn on my own experience, which is hardly the wisdom of the ages — in my experience, this conventional view of risk is shortsighted and often simply mistaken.
My first observation is that successful people understand that risk, properly conceived, is often highly productive rather than something to avoid. They appreciate that risk is an advantage to be used rather than a pitfall to be skirted. Such people understand that taking calculated risks is quite different from being rash.
This view of risk is not only unorthodox, it is paradoxical — the first of several paradoxes that I’m going to present to you today. This one might be encapsulated as follows: Playing it safe is dangerous. Far more often than you would realize, the real risk in life turns out to be the refusal to take a risk. In other words, the truly most threatening dangers usually arise when you shrink from confronting what only appear to be the most threatening dangers. What is widely regarded as playing it safe turns out not to be safe at all.
What I’m offering here is not a surefire, guaranteed formula for success. No such formula exists. It never will. If anyone ever tries to sell you one, keep your money in your pocket. For life, above all else, is a risk. I’m not trying to dispel that risk with a bottle of Charlie Sanford’s Magic Elixir. I can only arm you with a little food for thought. I do have a few suggestions. You may not wish to follow them. But if you’ll think about them, I’ll consider our time together most productively spent.
We all know that modern civilization owes much to the ancient Greeks. As the 20th century draws to a close, it’s difficult to single out a Greek thinker who speaks more directly to us than Heraclitus. All is flux, nothing stays still, said Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago. Nothing endures but change. Most of us have come to believe that nothing endures but change, but its consequences still deserve some reflection. Obviously, if change is the fundamental rule of life, then resistance to change is folly — doomed to defeat. Just as obviously, if change is our constant, then uncertainty is an inescapable part of our lives. Uncertainty is unavoidable. Life is unpredictable. The very essence of life is the unexpected and the unintended, the unanticipated turns that we may metaphorically ascribe to Fate or Destiny or Providence.
Therefore, unless we wish to be tossed about like so much flotsam on the waves of inescapable change, we must place ourselves squarely in the midst of change. We must learn to ride the current of change rather than to swim against it — although people who haven’t taken the trouble to learn how the world really works will think we’re doing exactly the opposite. In other words, risk is commonly thought of as going against the current, taking the hard way against high odds. In a world of constant change, however, a world where Heraclitus said we can never step into the same river twice, taking risks is accepting the flow of change and aligning ourselves with it. Remember the first paradox: Risk only looks like reckless endangerment. For those who understand reality, risk is actually the safest way to cope with a changing, uncertain world.
To take a risk is indeed to plunge into circumstances we cannot absolutely control. But the fact is that the only circumstances in this life that we can absolutely control are so relatively few and so utterly trivial as hardly to be worth the effort. Besides, the absence of absolute control — which is impossible in any case — does not entail the absence of any control, or even significant control. There, again, is the paradox: In a world of constant change, risk is actually a form of safety, because it accepts that world for what it is. Conventional safety is where the danger really lies, because it denies and resists the world.
I trust you understand that when I say risk is actually safety, I’m talking about a certain sort of risk. I’m not advising that you leap off tall buildings in the hope that the operation of constant change will reverse the law of gravity in mid-flight. I’m speaking rather of a sort of risk that actually aligns you with the direction of change. To be more specific, I believe firmly that the sort of risks that put one in a position to control one’s lot in a world of incessant change are the risks that attempt to add something of value to that world. To create value, to focus one’s efforts on increasing the fund of that which is worthwhile, involves (as we shall see) a sort of risk. And yet, paradoxically, it provides you with the greatest control over a changing world and maximizes your chances to achieve a truly meaningful personal satisfaction.
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