There was a time when I would often write articles that had titles as mysterious as the one sitting above. These articles would usually be long, winding narratives that explored a subject from top to bottom, and often took in many detours too. People would then contact me to complain I wrote too much. This left me bemused. Why would someone waste their time demanding less when they could simply choose to stop reading whenever they liked? I thought there could never be too many words because each sentence says something new. You can stop reading an article on one day, then return to complete it another day, much as we intend whenever we slip a bookmark between two printed pages. An audience’s time and energy may be exhausted long before an author has exhausted everything of value that can be thought or said. If that were not true then the study of philosophy should have been completed centuries ago. I stopped writing mysterious titles for the same reason I stopped writing long articles: I stopped writing articles for myself and started writing them for others. The data made available by publishing on the web gave me a new insight into how to write for other people because the data showed me the distribution of the audience’s behaviors. I hence know this article is going to be read by relatively few people, and have given it the kind of title that will help to guarantee this outcome. This particular article is a throwback; you are welcome to read it, but I wrote this piece for myself. The use of a mysterious title will help to keep everyone happy. Others will skip these words to focus on articles promising “10 Ways to Fix Your Risk Program” or something similar, whilst you wish to discover what the next paragraph is going to be about.
The following words were written on the blackboard of Richard Feynman (pictured) when the Nobel prizewinning physicist died.
What I cannot create, I do not understand
I question whether anybody really understands the world, but I can be confident the world is not understood by people who neither demonstrate their knowledge through actions nor describe the world in terms that others understand. A Romanian farmer may lack the English to explain agriculture to me, but I can tell from his crops that he knows his job. A modern physicist may rarely have the opportunity to perform a new experiment that corroborates his insights, but he can still describe the world and give other physicists a chance to provide feedback. Descriptions may be given in the language of mathematics, or may be expressed diagrammatically, or they may be words like these. The mental processes involved in altering or describing the world are intimately connected to the mental processes involved in understanding it. Or to put it another way, the proof of the pudding is not in the recitation of a list of ingredients learned by rote, but in being able to make the pudding, or being able to teach another person how to make it. A lifetime of talking to people about risk, and listening to what they have to say about it, has only confirmed this observation. Do not judge the quality of a person’s insights by their apparent seniority or how assured their manner is. You must ask yourself if you understood what the person said, or whether there is tangible evidence that they can deliver in practice what they are unable to explain in theory.
Just as we might question another person’s understanding, we can also question our own. Risk managers deal with uncertainty. They should habitually question the limits of what is known. I previously wrote for an audience of one, teaching myself about the world through the discipline of describing it. The act was self-centered, like maintaining a diary. It was a bonus that the internet allowed this content to be made available to others at negligible additional cost. Today I remind myself of the advantages gained by simply articulating how the world behaves, irrespective of whether anyone overhears my words. If you should decide that a similar and regular exercise of your mental faculties will help you to better understand the world then I applaud your wisdom whilst feigning selfish indifference to the choices you make.
Physicist David Goodstein shared a telling anecdote in his book, Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun:
Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”
The risk when having a conversation with yourself is that you may be mistaken about the meaning of words you use. The empirical method offers a simple safeguard: be like the farmer or the chef by actually nurturing the crops or making the pudding. If you subsequently starve then you will at least die knowing your understanding was flawed. However, some subjects are not amenable to much experimentation, such as astrophysics or risk management. Nobody employs a risk manager so they can learn from their failures. Testing the quality of understanding through discourse with worthy interlocutors may serve as a partial substitute for experimental data. Feynman tested the strength of ideas by conveying them to his students. If I only write for myself, I must forego the opportunity to draw upon the wisdom of others willing to critique my words. But if you want to tell me this article is too long, then please do not bother.
Actions speak louder than words; Feynman was a genius but he did not fill as many hungry bellies as a farmer would. It is not wrong for executives to want risk managers to provide actionable insights. At some point in the future a solar storm will knock out the electricity grid for large sections of the planet, which will doubtless prove uncomfortable for people reliant on computers, the internet, air conditioning and artificial sources of light, even if they remain mobile by still having cars powered by hydrocarbons. I know this because scientists monitor the Sun and they can create statistical models even if they only have data covering the last couple of centuries. But there is no way I will be able to persuade an executive to do something to prepare for this solar storm because they will rightly calculate that nobody else is doing anything about it, so their company’s share price will not suffer more than that of competitors. They will shrug off the risk because they know shareholders do not worry about solar storms either. It is the choices made by governments that ultimately dominate the risk-reward calculation when things go wrong on a planetary level, as recently evidenced during the pandemic. So expecting executives should pay you to spend time thinking about more than the most prosaic and immediate risks may reasonably be considered a luxury.
Many years ago I gave a lecture to a few thousand telecoms professionals in Beijing. The experience was horrible because I spoke in English but the audience listened to a simultaneous translation in Mandarin, and because nobody laughed at my jokes. Perhaps the jokes were poor or perhaps the translation did not do them justice. I hoped to gain some sense of whether the audience understood what I had tried to tell them through the question-and-answer session at the end of the lecture. I was out of luck. There was only one question and it came from somebody who wanted me to list the biggest leakages that telcos suffered.
On the one hand, that was a stupid question. Some people say there are no stupid questions, but I disagree. Questions can also be insults and it is stupid to insult somebody if you also hope to ever obtain valuable information from them. My lecture discussed why mistakes are made, how they vary in practice, and why they can be difficult to discover. It is an insult to simply expect this to be reduced to a simple list of mistakes supposedly made by every organization. Different people make different mistakes; if we all made exactly the same mistakes then it would be easy to prevent them. Asking me for a universal list of telco leakages is like asking philosophers to give a one-sentence explanation of the purpose of life, or attending a single class given by Richard Feynman in the hope his handout will be The Dummy’s Guide to Manufacturing Atomic Weapons. Teaching you how to manage risk is not the same as giving you a list of historic mistakes. Risks evolve and new mistakes are made.
On the other hand, that was still a stupid question to ask. Even if I could provide a short explanation of how to easily make millions of dollars by fixing telco bugs, why would I give that information for free to every idiot who asks for it? The only people who get rich from get-rich-quick schemes are the people who sell books that pretend to contain the ‘secrets’ to getting rich quick. The value of information is linked to how hard it is to digest the information, which is why tyrants and autocrats may want nuclear weapons but do not study advanced physics. Anyone who skips past all the reasons why risk management is difficult and only seeks advice on how to generate money from risk management is not making that request for humanitarian reasons. They clearly intend to sell the knowledge to somebody else. Feynman may have been a great teacher but I also trust he never indulged students that specifically asked for instructions on how to build weapons of mass destruction.
The time spent on contemplation can be a luxury, but it is also vital to achieving a superior understanding of how the world works. It may seem smart to skip the history of how a problem is solved and only seek the eventual answers. Executives employ experts because they want those answers, not because they want to become experts. However, it is foolish to demand expertise whilst expecting nobody to invest in developing that expertise. If you understand nothing about how the answers were generated then a real expert can mislead you into making the decisions that best suit them. A fake expert can do the same. The luxury of learning about the world may also be a necessity, especially if the goal is to accomplish something that others struggle to accomplish.
A superior nuclear bomb is not just a bomb; it is also superior. The equivalent observation is true of superior risk management, and which executive would admit to only wanting inferior risk management for their business? Words are found in textbooks, and in intellectual conversation, and in poems. The utility of each description of the world will vary, but only a poor student thinks they have become as wise as their teacher by reading the textbook that the teacher wrote. A student may gain tremendous knowledge from a teacher like Richard Feynman, but no matter how powerful the formulations copied by the student, none are as powerful as being able to devise a new formula. That is why allowing the luxury of time to play with words, even in the absence of any specific goal, is time that can be immeasurably well spent.