Humans are designed to hedge.
At work, in businesses or relationships, we rarely walk away from something or someone that is not working for us until we have secured a more desirable alternative.
You are offered admission into a random course of study? Accept it, and then try for what you really want, what you are meant to be becomes an option. Unhappy in a relationship? Keep keeping up appearances until you or your partner bumps into a spark. Work is hellish? Just hang in there, keep complaining and spreading the word until another job is found.
To be fair, these explanations might make sense, time is precious, let’s not waste it. Or how do you know there’s someone better out there? What if this is all there can be? As for leaving a job that is a source of much anxiety and sadness, there are always bills to pay, children to cater for or a new house to own. And employers that might not look kindly at an unemployed job seeker.
This is the nature of being, to hedge, to protect, to play safe. Or to think we are playing safe by not playing at all.
Yet in my experience, real opportunities lie in walking away from the sources of your darkness, from what is not working. A younger colleague once walked up to notify me she was leaving her job for school. I suggested a leave of absence which she declined on the spot. Her response? If I don’t believe enough in what I am doing, I might as well stay. She would come back a couple of years later, head hunted by the same institution for a bigger responsibility.
I must note that not everyone has been equipped to make such bold calls as turning down a free call option on a job, but far too many people are ‘dull-ing their shine’ because of fear of the unknown. Fear that they are only one step from being alone, unemployed or uneducated. Fear that they may graduate with the education they really want years after their friends have left university, or the practical fears of having children too late, or not at all.
Our obsession with hedging the future can also be seen in how we acquire and hoard assets in the hope that we can secure the future of our children, sometimes at the cost of other children dying today. Again, this need to hedge may be natural, probably traceable to our past as hunter gatherers when we collected and stored food. Or maybe it is the product of wars, a time when so much was uncertain. I am sure some research out there can explain it.
The fear that drives this behaviour is also connected with our failure as a people to collaborate and prosper communally as we all race to protect ‘our own’ at the expense of the collective good. It is indicative of the extent that our communities no longer function for the good of the people as our individuality assumes a destructive dimension.
In the workplace, I have seen people stumped in their career because they had turned what ought to be a journey through self-discovery to success into an exercise in latching on to a safety net that eventually breaks, leaving them unfulfilled and barely above the poverty they feared so much.
In relationships, it is common in break-up for a third party to be involved. In fact, I would argue that most of the break-up are tangentially linked to other people, be it family, friends or a love interest. It is far more likely that the relationship had stopped being a source of happiness but the parties kept at it because being alone just isn’t the option for either of them. And when such unhealthy relationships blows-up, the parties that is still unhedged experiences betrayal. It is not often that freedom from sorrow is received with so little fanfare as when a poisonous relationship ends.
And because we all fear the unknown, we hedge. Which can be a good thing because it may protect us from extreme outcomes such as joblessness or loneliness. But hedging can also limit our horizon, put a cap to our ambitions or derail our dreams. It can be the reason you never left that small town, or the excuse for remaining in an abusive relationship. Or it may also be why you feel so stunted, your career stalled, your options bleak.
What we all need to have is a safe space for experiments, or a lifeline for transitioning and a willingness to accept setbacks as the necessary price for progress. No amount of fear should make you wake up to a job that makes your blood run hot, or spouse that makes you go cold or a community to which you are lukewarm.
Build a transition plan and a support network, then take the plunge. As E.H. famously wrote;
There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?
The first step to freeing ourselves from life as a hedge and transiting to a life of believing in self and in our destinies is to lower the cost of risk. Once we understand the cost / consequences of risk, we can design appropriate counter measures.
One way to approach risk in a job is to save all our free cashflow for the recess, so that in leaving a job that only promises pain, we have savings to carry us through. We often make the mistake of deepening our dependency on a job that should have been a temporary engagement by living at the edge of our income, often increasing consumption as we progress. We change cars or move houses on income from a job we can’t stand, instead of saving to build our confidence in moving on.
In relationships, sad couples somehow arrive at the conclusion that having a child will mend a broken love, that taking additional responsibilities is how to rekindle romance. I am sure it has worked for some but it is really a stab in the dark at best. Children should not have to carry the burden of fixing a struggling relationship, they certainly shouldn’t be brought into the world for that. The thing to do is rediscover the self, spend time to enjoy your solitude and engage more in other social circles that feeds your happiness. Be reminded that you are not an appendage in any relationship but a wholesome being that can survive and even thrive. That is the hedge that will either mend your romance or leave you with enough self to move on.
And of course, as citizens, we are the story of a hedged elite, a nation where those responsible for making things work are so focused on a ‘plan B’ they have totally relegated the responsibilities of nation building to people ill equipped to manage anything beyond their family unit. The great chink in the armor of third world nation builders is the freedom to enjoy a lifestyle we did not contribute to, relocate to nations we had no input in crafting, enjoy decent healthcare without the hard-work of building one, send our children to great schools while we watch ours fail. Of all the hedging, this one best explains our poverty as a nation. The escapee economy, consisting of foreign education, health tourism, rogue capital outflows and second citizenships has become the number one enemy of the third world. Without these alternatives, Nigerians would be compelled to raise the standards of local schools, invest in healthcare and protect the economy.
I am certain that if the leadership of this country didn’t have the option of medical care abroad our healthcare infrastructure would be way better.
Escaping Nigeria may be necessary and easily excusable, nobody should die an avoidable death. Let’s not go so far as to present is as an act of bravery, something to extol one another to.
There is a time to hedge and a time to fight back, today we fight. We have been pushed to the wall, let’s not push the wall back.
Abubakar Suleiman is the CEO of Nigeria’s Sterling Bank