Uncovering the “Curse of Captiva”

First published May 5, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

“May you live in interesting times….”

Just about the time you’re reading that line, I’ll be kicking off the Search Insider Summit on Captiva Island, Fla., with it.  I think those six words pretty much sum up the theme of the three-day event.

Here’s the thing about that well-known quote – it’s both a blessing and a curse. On the surface, it appears to be a benevolent wish of good will, but lurking just under the surface lays a malevolent storm that can rip organizations and institutions apart.

The origins of the so-called “Chinese Curse” are murky, but according to Wikipedia, it may be related to the Chinese proverb: “It’s better to be a dog in peaceful times than to be a man in chaotic ones;” perhaps one reason why we should let “sleeping dogs lie.” This is all well and good if we have any choice in the matter, but we really don’t. Chaos, especially in our chosen field, is the new normal. Like it or not, we live in interesting times.

Personally, I like it, even though it can get exhausting at times. I’m one of those perverse individuals who thrive on chaos and change. If things become too placid for too long, my inclination is to get a big stick and stir things up. I’m driven by the belief that there must be a better way. But I know not everyone shares that view. For many, if not most, change brings uncertainty, which usually comes knocking with its traveling companions: stress and anxiety.

Change, in various forms, is pretty much all we’ll be talking about at Captiva. If change was a sure bet, a trading of the mediocre for the improved, there really wouldn’t be much to talk about. Change would be sought, embraced and systematically incorporated into everything we do.

The problem with change is that there are no guarantees ensuring you’ll end up in a better place. It’s tossing that which you know in the bucket and taking a chance on drawing a new lot in life that could be better, the same, or worse — perhaps much worse. And there’s the rub. Humans don’t approach such decisions rationally.

There’s a lot of unusual psychology at play here, covered by numerous economic behavioral theories like endowment effect, loss aversion, disposition effect and Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory. The long and the short of it is that most times, we believe a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And attitudes of that sort generally freeze change right in its tracks. We have not evolved to be born risk takers. This tendency can create bizarre behaviors that defy logic: like investors being much more willing to sell stocks that have gained in value than those that have decreased. We’ve all done that, with the unshakable belief that we can recoup our losses. But a purely statistical analysis of that theory would blow it to smithereens.

Through most of our history, the genetic evidence would seem to vindicate this aversion to risk. That we’re still around points to its success as a survival strategy. But current times are not representative of our general history. There are times, this being one of them, when external factors in our environment force us to make changes and embrace risk. Those that hesitate are lost.

During these times, it’s the nimble and adaptable that thrive. Bulk and baggage are impediments. Reinvention is the name of the game. It’s the prerequisite of living in interesting times.

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