Growing up in India, where inherent chaos makes sure most things don’t go according to plan, I got organically trained to always have a Plan B. The classic fallback option – the bylane you take when the main road is clogged because a minister is scheduled to pass through, the backup college seat you block in case you ranked low in the entrance exam for your top preference, or the autorickshaw you hail when the car refuses to start.
Look, I get it! Now that I am a father to 2 boys, I see the instinct parents have to ensure their children are tangibly & emotionally “safe” in all situations. So, I can appreciate why my middle-class upbringing was designed this way. To top it up, my technical education & early analytical jobs further pushed me into the world of scenario analysis & fail-safes.
Down the road, as I entered the risky world of startups, I naturally brought this instinct with me. While building, operating & investing in high-risk-high-reward endeavors, my animal brain would always push me to have a Plan B in my backpocket:
- If this startup doesn’t work, I can always go back to Company X.
- What if this investment fails? Let me spread my resources & take a smaller bet.
- If I don’t like living in Country Y, I can always go back to India.
A few years into taking these asymmetric bets (presumably backed by Plan Bs), I expectedly started encountering failures, both big & small, one after another. They ranged everything from major projects going South & unforeseen external risks coming to the party to unexpected company restructurings & gross misjudgment of certain people’s skills & intent.
During a recent introspection of these adverse experiences, something interesting jumped out – every time I attempted to call on a Plan B for a specific situation, more often than not, it wasn’t really there. In some cases, the “backup” companies had changed their strategy & weren’t a fit anymore. In others, I had grown in a different direction & going to a fall-back option would be a negative step. Many times, people I was relying on to help materialize a certain Plan B had either fallen out of touch, were themselves dealing with adversity, or had changed their context & therefore, relevance.
So this was my lightbulb moment that inspired this post – in high-risk-high-reward situations, Plan Bs are….fictitious. The very nature of extremely risky situations is that they take you in unpredictable directions, change your context in unimaginable ways & leave you with baggage that’s hard to foresee. And all this happens in parallel to a rapidly-changing external environment that in most cases, becomes increasingly incongruent with your endeavor (most asymmetric projects are by definition, contrarian in relation to established rules of the game that the majority operates by).
This complex system renders even the most thought-through Plan Bs useless. Given asymmetric bets are driven by power laws (a few will drive a majority of the total outcome) & compounding (need a long enough timeline for ideas to mature, which is when outcomes start growing exponentially), positioning yourself to be on the right side of these rules requires going all-in for a significant period of time.
While having a Plan B provides the initial psychological space to initiate a risk, in my experience, it unfortunately also creates a mental mechanism to cop out of it, & even worse, often doesn’t provide the safe landing space it initially promised.
Going forward, my aim is to ditch the “Plan B” mindset in all asymmetric bets. A fall-back instinct comes from a place of fear, and while controlled fear can be a useful tool to drive alertness & urgency, it becomes adverse when acting as a roadblock to going all-in & persevering on a thoughtfully-chosen path.
It’s important to add here that while ditching the Plan B outlook, I will still proactively focus on avoiding the Risk of Ruin at an overall life level. Asymmetric bets require multiple shots at the goal & therefore, safeguarding the ability to keep playing is paramount.
On a related note, a mental heuristic I have recently started using while making asymmetric decisions I am 50-50 on – “which option is the fear side of my brain asking me to choose?”. In most cases, I then lean towards the other option!
I have found the following quote by Swami Vivekananda to be hugely inspiring in driving this mental transformation:
Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.Swami Vivekananda
As you consider this approach, I want to leave you with this outstanding scene from Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. As a frustrated Bruce Wayne is trying to catch his breath after yet another failed attempt at climbing out of the pit (he was using a rope each time), an old & wise prisoner gives him the mantra for successfully making the climb:
You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of experience – the fear of death!
Make the climb…as the child did. Without a rope!The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
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