Making money – the point of being in business – involves balancing many differing factors, but one of the most important, especially in shipping, is balancing risk with reward. This is not just about capital, that is how much money am I willing to invest to achieve an expected pay out, but about how much appetite I have in the short term, medium and long term to change my life in the hope – rather than expectation – that my life will change for the better, whatever that means to me. How much am I willing to forgo now in order that the future will repay that sacrifice? Economic concepts such as opportunity costs apply to us personally as well as professionally, but our choices are never as rational as we may think, or hope they are.
The most important choice we never actually make is where, and to whom, we are born. This, more than anything else, defines who we will come to be. The place we are born will forever define us, and the family, whether we are lucky – or unlucky – to be brought up by the parents who conceived us, or are lucky – or unlucky – to grow up in other environments, will shape our world view, our desires, our ambitions and also provide us with the tools – suitable or otherwise – to make our way in the world we find ourselves in.
But beneath all that social conditioning, there is something else – our genetic hardwiring – that brings to our lives things we are not always in control of, or at best, things that we have to work on to adapt ourselves in the world that we live in.
Our origins as human beings, as a species, do not come from the highly connected and technologically overloaded world we live in. The structure of our brains was created in a far more risky environment than we find ourselves in now, where our very survival as a species depended on instinctive reactions, a mind that could learn, reflect and develop behaviour over a period of time that would help the communities we lived in – a necessity for the survival of our species – to function, and a desire for pleasure that ensured that we would want to live in a place – physically and mentally – where not only were we comfortable, we could create things that ensured that we could anticipate pleasure in the future.
These three things – fear, pain, pleasure – and our reactions to them could, once adapted into an organised society (that is any group of people living together), create the circumstances for a person, and the community that person lived in, and the other communities around it that it interacted with, to be part of a developing civilisation which could then conquer, be assumed into others, or be destroyed, depending on the risks it was willing, or not willing to make.
Once I reflect on these three things – another uniquely human characteristic – it becomes clear to me that taking risks is part of the human experience. To overcome fear of the unknown to explore new regions – geographical or emotional – involves rational (and at times irrational) decisions to overcome our fears and not only to venture into the unknown, but to accept the results of those decisions. To overcome pain – physical and emotional – to achieve a higher goal is the stuff of many legends, and the narrative of many books, plays and films. And the desire to enjoy the fruits of pleasure motivates us to start on this road, although how we define pleasure varies from person to person, and indeed from community to community. All this is the human story.
The more we risk, the bigger the potential reward. But the more we risk also increases the likelihood of loss, and failure. Is simple pleasure worth the risk? And is it enough to satisfy us?
I believe that the roots of pleasure are also hard-wired in us by evolution, and are in fact necessities for us to live our lives as human beings, whether we like it or not.
I take a great deal of pleasure in food and drink, and it should not be a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I also take a great deal of pleasure in preparing it and sharing it, whether by my own hand or joining friends in places where food and drink are shared. Apart from being a biological imperative to feed ourselves to grow and maintain our bodies, it is an important way of creating human relationships, also essential in creating self-sufficient and supporting communities.
Sex, and the desire for it, is pleasurable, but also absolutely essential for our societies to reproduce themselves and grow. This should be obvious.
Romantic love, companionship, friendship – and other worthwhile relationships – bring not only pleasure, but also support and comfort in times of stress and need, especially when the support of an immediate family is not forthcoming whether from distance or design.
Personal achievement, whether academic, financial, athletic, personal, political, artistic or simply doing our best and being recognised amongst our peers for it brings pleasure too, and a community that shows appreciation for it is one that understands getting better is a good thing.
Art, literature, music, dance, sculpture, architecture, and the fruits of any creativity bring pleasure to both the creator and recipient. These creations of beauty – in whatever form – are also important, both for feeding our souls, and of making sense of who we are.
I could go on, but you get the idea. But all of these pleasurable activities involve risks, and can lead to failure, and worse, pain. Some recipes fail, but harvests fail too. Planting the wrong crops in the wrong place at the wrong time could be a brilliant idea, or lead to famine. Wanting to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you is painful, as rejection and loneliness leads to frustration and a loss of the sense of who we are. Falling in love with someone and then being dumped is not great. And any end of a relationship, for whatever reason, whether right or wrong, wise or foolish does not lead to immediate joy. Failing exams, losing a race, going bankrupt or simply not achieving what you set out to do through wrong decisions – or even through no apparent fault of your own – does not immediately add to your self-esteem. Creating stuff that gives neither you or anyone else any pleasure is debilitating.
And more, the distortion of these desires for pleasure – especially in combination with each other – can lead to eating disorders, alcoholism, addictions to drugs, unwelcome sexual attention, self-harm, anti-social and aggressive behaviour and at its most basic level, a great deal of unhappiness. None of these are nothing new. Amplification of these distortions can lead to terrible things.
In competitive shipbroking, I am convinced that the reasons why every broker becomes a broker, and remains one is as varied as the differing personalities of the brokers themselves. Some are born into, some aspire to it, some have it thrust upon them. Some are better at it than others, some excel in different parts of the job. Some do it only for the money, some do it out of a genuine desire to protect their clients who they wish to form strong, meaningful bonds with, some do it because they see it as way to support and develop their families, some do it because it gives them genuine pleasure to be a broker. Some have a love-hate relationship with it, and seem to thrive on that tension.
But being a broker – especially a competitive one – involves the assessment of risk, and therefore the contemplation of failure, on a daily, maybe even an hourly basis. Decisions have to be made that can lead to success or failure, either immediately or like a time bomb embedded in the negotiations likely to explode at the most inconvenient time. Some decisions involve allocation of resources – as nebulous as time, commitment and energy – on a client or deal that turns out to be a waste of time, commitment and energy. Some specialise in areas that prove to be barren, others try to become generalists in an environment where knowledge and expertise are key. And failure is real: the majority of deals that are discussed, the interest shown, the commission counted mentally in the head, turn out to be as insubstantial as air. But like air these failures are essential for the market to work and for us brokers to survive.
Which is why risk is part of our lives. I do not just mean the risks inherent in being a broker, but the risks inherent in being a human being. It is part of who we are, and part of our stories as a species. Which is why risk management, consciously or unconsciously, and why risk appetite changes from person to person, company to company, society to society, country to country. And in a world where people, companies, communities and countries have always been competing for scarce resources, the choices and decisions we make are consequential and irreversible.
In a competitive environment, that is the world we live in, much is made of success and failure, of approval and blame, or praise or vilification of people or communities for the decisions they have made, or in the case of countries and societies, the decisions that have been made on their behalf without them having a say in it. But success in a competitive environment is not just down to strength, wisdom or foresight. It is also down to the ability to quickly learn from failure, the adaptability to change when the environment changes, and to recognise that the need for pleasure – in whatever form that takes – is a part of the story that drives us on.
We are continually surrounded by advice on how to improve our lives: LinkedIn in particular – but books, television, websites, films, friends, colleagues, bosses – pushing their recipe for success. Perhaps we would be happier if we acknowledged firstly what really floats our boats, what gives us real pleasure in the short, medium and long term, and then adapted our lives – in the confines of the environments we live in, that is the world of the possible – to feed that pleasure, individually, communally, for the benefit of us and those around us. Dealing with failure may then become easier and less traumatic, and even if we do not find joy in every waking moment of our lives, we may at least have some fun along the way.