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The Danger of Safety

I'd like to start this post by explaining a concept from economics called moral hazard.

Definition: Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences. (Source: Google)

I first heard of this concept on an episode of Hidden Brain—a truly brilliant podcast if you're looking for one.

To help the listener understand the concept, the host explained that when seat belts first came out, drivers actually become more reckless because they knew they would be safe.

I want to take the idea of moral hazard and apply it to something I've observed for a while and something else I've observed more recently.

What I've observed for a while

The members of my immediate family are sometimes exposed to the worst version of me.

By contrast, my colleagues at work are almost only exposed to a very polished version of me.

If I tell my colleagues at work that I yell at my kids—which is something I do less of now, but at one point was a real struggle for me—they can't wrap their minds around the idea of me even getting the least bit frustrated. So the idea of yelling, is just lunacy.

My wife has said to me before that she is jealous of my colleagues, because of the version of me that they get to see.

Do you experience this?

It seems so backwards.

Why do the people we love the most, experience the worst of us?

Likely because we feel safest around them.

What I've observed recently

With certain teams at work, there exists a real sense of trust and safety.

And with teams that have this to a high degree, there are also moments where teammates are able to be blunt and direct about things they are struggling with at work.

Sometimes these kinds of conversations—the struggles—can dominate an entire meeting.

Safety and trust are incredibly important, and can take a long time to cultivate.

They also create opportunities for individuals to expose a side of themselves that isn't often exposed.

The common dilemma

Here's the takeaway from both scenarios:

Where we feel safest, we can be our worst.

Is this a bad thing?

This is a hard question to answer. So instead let's use an analogy.

Imagine an empty backpack.

When you're the worst version of yourself, imagine putting a ball—a relatively heavy one, let's say a small bowling ball—into that backpack.

Now imagine giving that backpack to the person who was around you when you were the worst version of yourself, and having them walk around with it.

When you're the best version of yourself, imagine taking one ball out of the backpack.

If you're a neutral version of yourself, no balls go in or out of the backpack.

Hopefully, you can see where this is going.

Too many instances of the worst version of yourself, means the backpacks are too heavy, and they don't feel good to walk around with.

Not enough instances of the worst version of yourself, means that those around you might not be getting enough exercise. We all need some level of challenge.

Solving the dilemma

Is this dilemma worth solving?


Specifically in the instances where the backpack is really loaded up with balls.

To start taking the balls out of the backpack, you need to shift your attention to the good things.

The really, really good things.

The good-er the thing, the better.

A phrase I love from the book Switch, "Focus on the bright spots."

They are always there. Overshadowed sometimes, but still there.

Find them, and you'll solve the dilemma. For now.

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