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"Attending surgeon's office" by Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health and Medicine, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright CC BY 2.0.

Wisdom from a health checkup

Doctors found that something was not quite right with me during my last physical. A minuscule polyp sitting on my gallbladder had increased in size. It is small enough not to worry too much. In fact, more than 98% of these polyps are benign (i.e., not cancerous), especially considering my healthy background and my age (I am not that old, thank you).

As someone who makes a living helping people manage risk, I learned something from this experience: even in cases when a relatively young and healthy person has a polyp, plenty of doctors still recommend removing the gallbladder altogether because “you don’t really need it anyway.” The idea of removing a healthy organ to eliminate all risk of things going wrong with it in the future – however minuscule the chance – says a lot about how we handle risk in our societies.

These days everyone wants to live forever, and concierge medicine has emerged to cater to the whims or perceived ailments of the well off. We are living in an age when we believe we can overcome the downsides of biology in all kinds of ways, because we can sometimes use technology and scientific knowhow to, mostly, pull it off.

In business, leadership, and life we’ve become extremely risk averse too. We are sometimes willing to forego potential rewards or radically change our lives in hopes of avoiding future trouble. Three lessons come to mind here:

There is risk in trying to avoid all risk. Aiming for zero percent risk in our lives is an absurd philosophy. You cannot live like that. I often help oil and mining companies manage risks in countries with armed conflicts, rampant corruption, or dysfunctional politics. If these companies chose not to do business in high-risk places, we would have no gasoline, cell phones, cars, or any number of other products. Some people would welcome that, but that is another conversation. Even the choice of taking out your gallbladder (aside from potential surgery complications) can lead to intolerance for greasy foods, among other health and lifestyle challenges. There is a reason why homo sapiens evolved a gallbladder. It has a biological function. Bottom line: there is no such thing as avoiding all risk.

Monitor the potential for adversity. A health checkup in life is similar to assessing risks in business. If there are any problems on the horizon you want to know early so you can act. Not everyone agrees. In fact, many people and companies prefer not to delve too deep into what can go wrong with their business ventures or their health. In the episode “Role Model” of the famous Dr House television series, the lead character played by Hugh Laurie, describes a full body scan as “useless” because “you could probably scan every one of us and find fifty doo-dahs that look like cancer.” I now understand his point, but I don’t fully buy his solution. Monitoring any issues raised by a thorough health checkup (like my polyp) or assessing the risks involved in a high stakes business venture, is plain common sense. An out-of-sight-is-out-of-mind approach to health and business risks is dangerous. Which brings us to…

Anticipating trouble requires discipline. If you are going to check your health regularly, or stress test your business ideas, you need to keep your head straight. Do not panic at the first sight of potential trouble. I almost made this mistake myself. Even after a surgeon told me that never in his career had he seen a polyp like mine turn into cancer, I was still considering taking it out as soon as possible. It took the opinion of my father-in-law, a pathologist with a postdoc from Harvard (a brilliant guy with a no-BS attitude), to talk sense into me. Even advisors need advisors.

Ignoring dangers and doing something rash to avoid them can be equally dumb. Sometimes it is better to face threats head on, take a breath, pause, and monitor risk factors for a while before acting.

What I’m (Re) Reading 

The book “Letters from a Stoic” (Penguin, 1969) by Seneca, seems appropriate for this week. For all the complexity of our societies, it is refreshing to understand that nearly 2000 years ago people struggled with the same issues we struggle with now. The book is a collection of letters that the Roman philosopher wrote towards the end of his life, after he had served for more than a decade for Emperor Nero. Yes, the same Nero that some blame for burning down Rome in AD 64.

Seneca’s insights are all about staying grounded, preparation to survive adversity, and endurance. Among the many musings in a work filled with wisdom, Seneca warns that if the mind “has acquired the habit of unthinking panic, it is incapable of attending to its own self-preservation.” The mind, he says, “runs away from dangers instead of taking steps to avert them.” What he means is that you need to train yourself to face trouble calmly.

For Seneca, being levelheaded can only be achieved by facing some form of adversity. “It is essential to make oneself used to putting up with a little,” Seneca says. In fact, he argues, “we have actually come to such a pitch of choosiness that we object to walking on anything other than precious stones.” He could very well be referring to our own comfort-seeking societies.

Another lesson Seneca teaches that I find crucial is to not let events take you by surprise. We must be aware of the world around us, especially in times when we are enjoying success and wealth. Or as he puts it: “It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times.”