Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rolling the Dice

I encountered my skip-level boss, our General Manager, in the kitchen Friday morning. I had a talk with him about a career certification that I'm pursuing, and the fact that I want sure if I should gamble the money needed for the examination in such uncertain times. And he asked me a very important question.

"What makes you characterize this risk as a gamble?"
He was, of course, dead-on correct. (After all, you don't get to be a General Manager, if you're stupid, or don't understand why, how and when to take risks.) And as I thought about his question, I realized that I saw the examination as a gamble because I understood the cost, and the potential consequences of that cost, but that I didn't understand the benefits. So the risk matrix looked like this:

Cons: The examination is expensive.
  1. If I don't pass the exam, I've spent money on a certification I won't have.
  2. If the certification doesn't increase my overall employability/earning potential, that's money better saved or spent elsewhere.
  3. The certification comes with maintenance requirements, so if it doesn't lead to a raise, it's a net loss.
Pros: Passing the exam means I get letters after my name.
  1. Those letters could improve my overall employability/earning potential - by some percentage between 0 and x where x is an unknown that may itself be 0.
And therein lay the issue. I can see all of the downsides, qualify them, and understand the consequences if they come to pass. The upsides are basically hopeful things, but I have no way of knowing what the actual benefits will be, unless they come to pass, and I don't have a clear picture of what the likelihood is that I'll come out ahead. And I don't know of an unbiased source of that information. So I feel that I'm risking something, with no idea of how that risk pays off in the end.

To a degree, that is the way of things in our society. Information is power, and people who can keep information from others have an advantage. Bankers are constantly looking at whatever information they can get, to minimize their risks. Working under the assumption that "bad people are bad people are bad people," they want to know how many traffic accidents you've had, if you always pay your taxes on time, where you shop and who else is loaning you money. At the same time, the complex financial instruments that bankers were so in love with until a month ago were deliberately designed to be opaque - to make it difficult for people to understand the risks they were taking. Companies work hard to present a good face to the public, and will sue anyone who says otherwise - even if it's true.

And so, I see myself as blind - unable to see the forces that I need to be able to work within and around if I'm going to succeed in life. And so, confronted with choices, but unable to see the results of making them, I do the rational thing. Shrug, and roll the dice.

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