The future is uncertain. More of the same seems familiar while something completely different can be scary. The character of Robert California delivers this monologue at the end of the Halloween episode of The Office (“Spooked” season 8, ep. 5)
Fear plays an interesting role in our lives. How dare we let it motivate us. How dare we let it into our decision making, into our livelihoods, into our relationships. It’s funny, isn’t it, we take a day a year to dress up in costume and celebrate fear.
Loss aversion is the concept that we tend to overvalue the negative relative to the good. We remember burning our hand on the stove in our childhood home much more vividly than the hundreds of dinners cooked on it. Loss aversion’s natural presence in our memory means it shows up when we’re making choices about our future as well. This is the fear Robert California is talking about.
Professionally, anytime we are guiding someone into the future, we have to keep loss aversion in mind. Staying the same is conservative. Staying the same is safe. Staying the same is not touching the hot stove and the affirming comfort of a nightly meal. Sometimes staying the same is good, but other times a change can be the right thing to do. Recommending change can be challenging. It takes understanding the past, the present, and the future a person actually wants to achieve.
“How dare we let it motivate us,” is a plea to not let loss aversion control our fear of what could be beneficial changes. It’s “funny” to celebrate fear conservatively by putting on a costume and not changing anything of consequence. Putting on a costume can also be a way to safely practice changes we want to make. A draft version of a plan or several choices with options can make change feel more comfortable. Sometimes normalizing the future and making it tangible is the only way to try something new. Framed well, facing those fears or casting them aside can even become empowering.
Our job is to not let fear be the primary motivator of decisions. It will almost always be present in some form, but we can’t let loss aversion control any hope of progress. At the end of the episode, Robert tells a story culminating all of the employees’ personal fears. It’s funny but it’s also the way he encourages several characters to make forward progress within their own lives. He reminds them to be averse to the right types of losses – the long-term ramifications of focusing too much on petty details.
Beneficial changes shouldn’t be scary to make, but sometimes they just are. We create value when we can show our clients a path to change that feels worth taking.