If you're not worried...
"The coronavirus panic is dumb."
– Elon Musk
"Saying the coronavirus panic is dumb is dumb."
– Nassim Taleb
It was a bright, sunny January morning, and as I ran briskly up a hill on 33rd Street, I chewed through some of the usual low-grade Sunday morning anxiety: a growing to-do list, the busy weeks ahead, some long-term career goals.
Suddenly, my internal monologue was interrupted by an unfamiliar sharp eruption of pain in my left ankle and the sound of my sneakers scuffing the sidewalk as I crumbled awkwardly onto the sidewalk.
I had stepped into an unusually deep West Philadelphia pothole. It was just a sprained ankle. But it was only 3 months until I was supposed to run the Boston Marathon, and now I would be missing at least 3 weeks of crucial training.
So I did what most people do in this situation:
I worried about how long it would take me to get back to training. I worried about getting out of shape. I worried so much that I went back to running too soon. And as the sprained ankle developed into tendonitis, and the tendonitis forced me into a giant walking boot, and suddenly I hadn't run in 6 weeks, worries about the quickly approaching Boston Marathon descended into disappointment and frustration.
Then, when it finally seemed clear I wouldn't be running a marathon any time soon, the coronavirus pandemic arrived and postponed the Boston Marathon to September. Almost as quickly as a sprained ankle thwarted my marathon plans, suddenly the coronavirus appeared to resurrect them. But in the process, the pandemic created a whole new batch of serious problems no one, including me, was even worried about before. So it turned out I was worrying about the wrong thing all along.
Ray Dalio summarizes this classic phenomenon in his book Principles (1):
"If you're not worried, you need to worry, and if you're worried, you don't need to worry."
No one was worried about coronavirus for a while. As a country, we were instead worried about the election or whether the stock market would keep going up forever. As individuals, we were likely worried about our own rather short-term problems, which may or may not have included running a Boston Marathon. Meanwhile, a very serious existential threat was multiplying right underneath our noses.
The most serious crises we face – as individuals, as an organization, as a society – are always the ones we underestimate. They are the problems we don't worry about but we should, the bad habits we allow to fester, or the wounds we cover up or ignore that inevitably grow infected.
Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, our society had overlooked the serious risk of mortgage-backed securities and the fragility of our financial system. Before the 1987 King's Cross disaster, which killed 31 people, the London Underground had overlooked the importance of subway fire safety. No one thought hand-washing mattered in the medical field until Ignaz Semmelweis publicized the high mortality rates of young mothers, who were being infected with childbed fever – unsuspectingly – by their own doctors.
Why do we so often fail to recognize these emerging crises until the damage has already started?
Well, unfortunately not all problems can be worried about and stopped before they happen. These are the so-called "black swans" – terrorist attacks, natural disasters, freak accidents – that are impossible to predict. But true black swans are more rare than we think; often a serious crisis is caused not by true blindness, but by willful ignorance, an inability to admit or accept the warning signs until they're shoved down our throat.
In the case of the coronavirus, it is actually good that we are now worrying so much about it. We have little understanding of its statistical properties, how quickly it spreads, and how deadly it really is. So, as Nassim Taleb has noted, we must overreact. It is better to seem like a fool using a firetruck to put out a match, than to end up a fool with a house burning to the ground.
Unfortunately, people are falsely comparing the coronavirus to the flu or car accidents. They are arguing that each year thousands more people die from these two dangers, so we must be overreacting to the coronavirus threat. But the mortality rates of the flu and car accidents are relatively stable, calculated with years of historical data. The coronavirus, by contrast, is a complete mystery: it could kill 500 Americans or 500,000. It is a problem we simply can't afford to ignore.
What are the problems we face as individuals that we can't afford to ignore? Think about your three worst habits. Maybe you've had these habits for so long that you've stopped bothering to fix them. Maybe they are just costing you a dollar here and there, or a headache every Saturday. But underneath the surface, these habits could be eating away at your health or your financial standing. No one ever intends for a habit to become an addiction, but that's exactly what they become when you ignore them for so long.
Think about a new startup in your industry. Are you underestimating its potential to disrupt and destroy you? Or think about a toxic employee you've hired. Are you underestimating his power to tear-down your whole organization?
Or, consider an even broader problem: climate change. Are we underestimating its power to destroy our planet?
The common denominator between bad habits, industry disruption, climate change, and coronavirus is that they all contain a possibility of complete destruction. And these hidden risks of ruin only increase the more we ignore them and allow them to multiply.
If something can kill you or bankrupt your company, you should probably worry about it. And if something can eradicate our planet, we should probably worry about it, too.
And think of all the short-term problems we worry about that won't matter in the long run. We all could benefit from adjusting what we worry about and what we don't.
(1) Principles by Ray Dalio (p. 476)