A couple weeks ago I delivering the opening keynote at an agricultural conference. For those of who don’t know, theirs is an industry currently facing significant challenges. A combination of unusually uncooperative weather and unprecedented policy decisions have simultaneously depressed crop supply and prices. Farming is a difficult business, and farmers today are having a harder time of it than usual.
My job, in addition to offering some concrete solutions, was to kick the conference off with a fun, high-energy keynote. So I opened up by saying, “I know it’s been a challenging time for all of you, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But here’s a thought. Crazy thought, but next year, don’t plant anything. At all. Year after that, name your price.”
It got a laugh, and then we moved on to “more serious” ideas. But I was only half-kidding when I said it. That strategy would work.
Most of us have an instinctive aversion to doing anything drastic. We crave stability, even if we don’t always like the stability we’ve found, and massive interruptions to our existing system are more commonly viewed with dread than excitement. This is true regardless of what each of us considers to be ‘stable.’ Force a lion tamer to work in an office all day, and they’d probably be as miserable as an office worker being forced to work as a lion tamer.
There are several very good reasons why we generally avoid drastic action. If things are working well, then making tiny alterations to our mostly perfect system is far better than throwing it all away and trying something entirely new. We also tend to learn fairly slowly, building on knowledge incrementally rather than exponentially; we start with basic addition, not calculus. Besides, drastic action often leads to spectacular failure, and all of us have enough examples of that in our past that we’d rather not repeat the experience.
And yet, doing something drastic is probably the best way for us to make a significant change to our situation, and sometimes that’s necessary. It’s common to see people who have just ended a relationship going on an expensive trip, or buying a motorcycle or an entirely new wardrobe; in those cases, drastic change seems like the best way to move from negative to positive. This also helps explain the so-called “mid-life crisis,” where your seemingly stable colleague suddenly sells their house and buys an apple orchard. In most cases, mid-life crises aren’t spur-of-the-moment decisions. Instead, they are carefully thought out after it becomes clear that months or years of incremental change isn’t doing what needs to be done.
This is why young people do so much job-hopping. Today’s young people are no different in this respect than 25-year-olds back in 1960, by the way – young people have always been more willing to switch employers and careers than older people. Doing so is far more drastic than simply staying with your current employer and waiting for the right opportunity to come along, but it’s also a lot more likely to result in higher pay and a more important job in a shorter amount of time. It might be worth mentioning that nobody ever became a billionaire by sticking their money in mutual funds and settling on a 6% return.
The point is, drastic action leads to drastic results – sometimes positive, and sometimes negative. Most of the time, that’s not what we’re looking for. Most of the time, the fear of something massively negative happening is a lot stronger than our need for something massively positive to happen. But if things really aren’t where you want them to be, or if you sense a fantastic opportunity might be glittering on the horizon, then doing something drastic might be exactly what you need.
Thanks for reading. And be nice to farmers. They have a lot more power than they like to admit, and it’s best if we don’t push them so far that they decide it’s worth using it.