Moving Boulders

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A few years ago a friend of mine was thinking about some financial investments that I thought were a bad idea. I was trying to discourage her without telling her what to do — it was her life after all, she didn’t need me to tell her how to live it. But one of the ideas actually went beyond being a bad idea and moved into being moderately illegal. I pointed that out to her and thought she’d say, “Oh yeah, you’re right.” But she didn’t. She said, “Well maybe if you look at it like that it would be, but if I did it like this, it would be fine, and anyway, who would know?” And I was like okay that’s definitely fraud and we need to stop talking about this.

So I stopped talking to her about it but felt like I needed to give her my full opinion and wrote it out in a letter that I sent it to her in the mail, telling her that she was free to do anything she wanted but I would not be participating. (And, for the record, she did listen to me in the end.)

After getting the letter, she thanked me, and I told her a story that had been useful to me in trying to decide whether or not things were a good idea, and when to decide that they probably weren’t.

A few years ago, there was a terrible tragedy involving a family who were driving home to San Francisco from a holiday in Seattle. They were going to spend the night on the Oregon coast, but missed the turn off the interstate onto the main road and decided to take an alternate route. The alternate route had warning signs that it was not always passable in winter, but they didn’t see the signs, or saw them but chose to ignore them.

It was late at night and the weather was bad, then got worse, and they took another wrong turn onto a remote logging road that should have had a gate up to close it but didn’t. After twenty miles, it was very late and the weather was too bad to continue. They stopped for the night, and the next day found themselves snowed in. No one knew where they were, and they couldn’t reach anyone for help because there was no cell phone service in the area. After six days, the gas in their car was gone, their food had run out, they had burned the tires of the car trying to light a signal fire, and still no one knew where they were. The husband set out on foot to see if he could get out and get help. He died in a river bed a few miles from a fully stocked hunting lodge, after walking for two days. His wife and two young children were rescued by helicopter after a massive search.

This story sounded so strange to me.

I didn’t understand how this could happen. I wondered if it was a case of people being so reliant on technology (GPS, cell phone) that they were literally lost without them. I got obsessed trying to find news articles about them to see if I could learn what had happened.

By the time I started researching, it had been over for a few weeks, so most of the articles were about what a hero the husband was, dying to try to save his family, or how shameful the rescue effort had been. But I still didn’t understand how someone could get so lost, in this day and age, that they ended up driving into the middle of nowhere, were completely stranded for more than a week, and died.

I eventually found some articles that gave more details, and some of them were pretty fascinating.

The signs warning them that the road was not open in the winter were not small obscure signs, they were giant. There were branches and tree limbs down all over the road; it was nearly impassable in many spots. In fact, in places the road was almost completely blocked with rocks and boulders. But instead of realizing they had taken a wrong turn and going back and starting over, for whatever reason, they kept moving forward. It was reported that they had even gotten out of the car to move obstacles out of the way, including huge boulders, so they could keep going.

Obviously without having been there, we can never know what really happened, but the story as told seemed like a good analogy for a lot of things.

If you’re going along and everything is really hard and there are constant obstacles, maybe that’s not what you should be doing. Maybe you should turn around and go back to where you started and try a new route.

Because anyone can make a wrong turn, that’s easy to do. But don’t spend energy moving boulders out of the way so you can keep going in the wrong direction.

4 Responses to “Moving Boulders”

  1. Ruby Leigh Says:

    Well that might be a pretty good analogy for why I got divorced.

    Probably a strange first comment for a former lurker, so I’ll just add I enjoy your other work as well.

  2. fivecats Says:

    it’s really a matter of what one chooses to believe. we like to think that those choices are based on logic, empirical evidence and experience/advice but a lot of times there’s a bias towards, well, something oddly different.

    what caused james kim to continue driving along a very difficult road? it could have been any number of illogical reasons fueled by panic and desperation and fear of getting trapped while trying to turn around.

    your friend with the investment plan, though, is somewhat different in my view. she wanted a good return on her money and wasn’t terribly concerned about the ethical implications of that profit. that’s not driving in a snowstorm with a family to protect, that’s greed. the fact that she didn’t stop considering the idea when you first pointed it out to her shows that clearly.

    she wasn’t seeing the potential illegality as a problem or an obstacle. in fact, she wasn’t seeing the illegality at all.

    i get what you’re trying to say here, i’m just not seeing the analogy quite as clearly.

  3. lessisenough Says:

    Well without getting into details on the investment, it was mostly someone not really thinking clearly during a time when a lot of people weren’t thinking clearly (during the housing bubble), not necessarily unbridled greed. It was basically something that could have worked, but had a lot of complications with it, some of which were more complicated than others. And there was a perfectly reasonable alternative that didn’t involve moving boulders off of a nearly impassable road. And that’s what she did ultimately.

    And you don’t have to get the analogy, they’re just linked in my mind because I felt like the story was something that made sense to my friend in a way that logical arguments didn’t.

    Also like I said, without having been there, we can never know what happened, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) for the life of me understand how someone could drive far enough along such a terrible road that it became impossible to turn around and get back to where they started.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    @Ruby

    I have great respect for lurkers, I almost never post comments on other people’s blogs. But thanks for the input, I appreciate it.


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