Each summer, in mid-June,
I load the car with computer gear, Risk Management Reports files, warm-weather clothing and a store of reading, and drive five hours
northeast to Tenants Harbor, Maine. There I set up operations for three full months
of reorienting my thinking and changing from my normal pace of life in Lyme, Connecticut.
Yes, I admit that I am retired, but even a septuagenarian requires a periodic shift
in focus. It’s this change that clears the mind and revives the spirit. Part of my shift is
a result of serving as the financial officer, general factotum and handyman for a junior sailing
program that runs for six weeks just off our dock in the harbor. Outboards that fail to
run, lost battens, missing clevis pins, holes in sails, damaged mast-steps, carving a new
bailer from a plastic bottle, a VHF radio dropped into the drink, parents anxious about their
offspring: all require the immediate attention of the nearest adult, and I drop my reading,
writing and emailing to respond to each new crisis. They materialize like midgets
exiting the tiny car at the circus. It’s amazing that, at the end of most days, I’ve
lived and breathed only sailboats, without a thought about risk management!
And that’s my point. In this hyperactive world of workaholics and over-achievers, where
a 40-hour workweek is considered laughable by the denizens of Washington, Wall Street,
the City and Mumbai, I see too many signs of over-focus. Government and corporate
objectives take top priority. Employees respond with ten and twelve hour workdays. In
Germany one company persuaded its union to shift to a 40-hour workweek instead of the
conventional 35 without any increase in pay, trying to catch up with the vaunted US
"productivity." This mantra of "productivity," increasing total per-person financial
output, overlooks the idea that quality of output is more important than financial volume.
In government one result of over-focus is the growing prevalence of “groupthink,” the
inability or unwillingness of staff to challenge the ideas of aggressive leaders, following
them blindly into chaos. Barbara Ehrenreich summed it up correctly: "while the capacity
for groupthink is an endearing part of our (US) legacy as social animals, it’s also a
common precedent for self-destruction." (The New York Times, July 15, 2004). Some of
this is religious in nature. Is there any major difference between the narrow-minded
"biblical worldview" of some in Washington and Jerusalem and that of the fundamental
Islamics in Riyadh, Teheran and Baghdad? A different hymnal, yes, but these are the
same misinterpretations based on
an unwillingness to violate "principles." And could this
groupthink be the result of an incessant over-focus, without taking the time to step away
from the fray and consider other options? Skepticism is a critical ingredient of rational
focus. Hendrik Hertzberg explained this well in a short piece in The New Yorker (March
19, 2001): "Acts that are ’faith-based’ stand a good chance of being beneficial to
humanity, but not a better chance than acts that are skepticism-based—that is, grounded
in an understanding of morality that does not rely on fear (or love) of divine authority (or
any other kind of authority, for that matter)."
I have no criticism of applying total concentration when it is warranted. Professional
golfers demonstrate this intensity on their tours, and the victory of Todd Hamilton in the
British Open in July was a clear illustration of his ability to shut out extraneous noise and
play the game. Similarly, the face of Lance Armstrong winning mountain stages and time
trials in the Tour de France showed the same level of uncorrupted concentration and
focus. Yet golfers and cyclists alike shut down their focus each day and between
tournaments and races. Their ability to unfocus and shift their views may be the secret of
their long-term success.
This is the lesson I learn from my annual shift from Lyme to Maine: a change in focus
inevitably recharges my enthusiasm and interest in our fascinating discipline. In a world
of over-focus, we, as risk managers, should suggest more time to refocus our thoughts.
It was only the sea sounding weary
after so many lifetimes
of pretending to be rushing off somewhere
and never getting anywhere.
Charles Simic, "Late September", The New Yorker,
September 16, 2002