On June 4, 1940, in his speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill speaks to the great trial the Dunkirk strategic retreat was for the Allied forces. He mentions that the “miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity” from the Royal Air Force was manifest to all. When he mentions “all”, he is referring, in my opinion, to not just all those present in the room that day listening to his speech, but to all British citizens, and all freedom minded people in the world that could listen. During the same speech, he also mentions that “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the air force.”
Why am I writing about this today, you may ask? I was in a meeting recently, going over the profiles of some of the companies that have launched through our Startup NOW accelerator program. During the analysis, we were considering one of the entrepreneurs behind one of the companies. We talked about our near certainty of ultimate success that we would assign to the effort being pursued by the entrepreneur. The phrase “this entrepreneur has the determination to either succeed or die trying” came up during the discussion.
How many times have we not come across this image of a fierce, supernatural, almost self-destructive fighter that launches into the middle of a chaotic battlefield, wielding the most terrifying weapons, ready to annihilate anything and anybody that comes within their range of perception? In the world of video games and Hollywood blockbusters, characters like these exhibit the six systemic flaws in how humans think about risk. Without going into detail (that could be material for another write up), these include our proclivity to believe in trends and patterns in events that occur randomly, our faith in small samples, our general lack of knowledge and skill in the subject of relative probabilities, our change in risk attitudes in troubled situations, our misunderstanding of the “risk of ruin”, and the irrational conservative decisions we make when facing tiny probabilities with catastrophic consequences. In other words, we are bad at estimating our odds, and we are bad at making the right choices when things get dicey, we make stupid decisions when in love of our ideas, we ignore all the failure stories that must have existed because we’re only told or read about the ones that ended in success. We are so full of ourselves sometimes, that we think the way to pursue something until we find success is binary. We either “go all out an succeed” or “we die trying”. Note to reader: you (we) are not Optimus Prime.
Churchill’s strategic retreat, acted on rationally and delivered miraculously, you may say, allowed the Allied forces to regroup, restrategize and relaunch the efforts that lead to ultimate victory and the defeat of the forces of darkness which would have sunk the world into bondage. This retreat came out of our shared philosophy of self-preservation. We cannot secure the well-being of our posterity and reap the fruits of our efforts seeking self-reliance for us and for our loved ones in the next generation if we don’t put forth an effort to assess and master our responses to the risks we face. Every entrepreneur has to constantly think ahead to what is coming around the corner, how it will impact them, and how to respond.
Next time you face desperate times, be careful of the desperate measures your instincts may lead you to. Invest now in bettering yourself and understanding yourself. Put on your oxygen mask before you put the masks on the young ones. Appeal to reason. Think, regroup, relaunch. I know you want to transform your future and that of your loved ones. Do it as a cultivated human, like Churchill, with our yearnings, and our gifts and flaws; not as Optimus Prime – he wins only on the movies.