Vail Daily column: Everything that can happen | VailDaily.com
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Vail Daily column: Everything that can happen

Benjamin A. Gochberg
Valley Voices

I had stepped into a crosswalk a thousand times before. You’re always told to look both ways as a kid, and as far as I can remember, I did. The thing is, usually, when a car starts to approach a crosswalk with someone in it, it slows down. This car didn’t slow down.

The last thing I heard before the whole world went black was the bang of the car striking me in the shins. I came to in the middle of the street on my side and was fortunate the next car missed me.

I had expected, as most of us likely do, that the car would stop. I had assumed, based on numerous previous experiences in crosswalks that the car was going to slow down. That’s what’s supposed to happen in the scenario.

I was having coffee the other day with Don Rogers when this very subject popped up. Not cars and crosswalks, but black swans. A black swan is an extremely unlikely event, whether positive or negative in nature, that has lasting and tremendous effect.

Need an example? Nassim Taleb, in his book, uses the example of the attacks on 9/11. It would have been deemed unreasonable and highly unlikely to create measures that would have protected the World Trade Center and the Pentagon from such an attack. After the attack, measures were taken to ensure that the risk of a similar event was mitigated. See, that’s the thing with black swans — they are easy to spot in retrospect as significant events.

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Further, had the possibility of the attack been imagined and prevented, none of us would have ever thought that a lock on a cabin door in a plane was anything but an extreme and possibly unnecessary measure of safety.

And beyond that, who of us would have ever thought that a lock on a cabin door in a plane could have actually posed a significant security risk in and of itself — a risk which tragically became a recent reality and a dark example.

As a banker, I use a series of nice neat templates and guidelines to make loans. These models make sure that we understand the risk within a given credit. But to tell you the truth, I’m not too worried about the risks that I know about already.

You see, what keeps me up at night about the local economy is not the possibility of known risk. No, what worries me most is that we are increasingly moving to models in many businesses which remove the requirement of interpersonal skills such as intuition, judgment and abstract thinking. The technicals and the spreadsheets are getting overemphasized all over the place, and we’re losing touch with each other as human beings. More and more, I see individual operators in our economy treating other individuals as detached assumed adversaries rather than close potential allies.

As a result, we’re losing the ability as a population of anticipating an unknown risk. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re increasingly incapable of thinking about what we don’t know as we isolate ourselves.

I find myself wide awake at 1 in the morning trying to anticipate the economic risks that bankers in this community haven’t identified and mitigated already — risks like an aging population of business owners without succession plans or assisted living capacity, climate change and pot-induced zombie apocalypses. Obviously I don’t categorize those items as being within the same standard deviation of the risk mean.

Simultaneously, I’ve got to tell you, we need to “come to” when we approach the subject of positive black swans. We get so entrenched planning out our neat little lives. I meet more terrified people than ever before these days — people who are so anxious about having everything tied up in a nice bow and happening as expected. I dare you to make a list of the top 10 most positive things that have ever happened to you. How many out of 10 were planned and executed as expected to plan? What does that tell us about life? Assume the possibility of being surprised with the improbable good.

See, when we understand that the unknown negative and positive events are actually a possibility, it gets pretty hard to not take note of the blessed and exciting state of our present life. Whether we are talking about crosswalks, lending or being introduced to a 20-something Moldovan named Sasha, we’ve got to accept that it just might happen.

When we do finally accept that the unknown can happen, hopefully we can just shake our heads and chuckle with wonder — and maybe we’ll be able to just let ourselves fall asleep at 1 in the morning.

Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He plays, lives, works and is trying to do a little good in Eagle County. He can be reached for business inquiries or free consultation at 970-471-3546.


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