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← Why we ignore obvious problems -- and how to act on them

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Showing Revision 8 created 05/07/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. So what if there were
    a highly obvious problem

  2. right in front of you?
  3. One that everyone was talking about,
  4. one that affected you directly.
  5. Would you do everything
    within your power to fix things
  6. before they got worse?
  7. Don't be so sure.
  8. We are all much more likely
    than any of us would like to admit
  9. to miss what's right in front of our eyes.
  10. And in fact,
  11. we're sometimes most likely
    to turn away from things
  12. precisely because of the threat
    that they represent to us,
  13. in business, life and the world.
  14. So I want to give you an example
    from my world, economic policy.

  15. So when Alan Greenspan
    was head of the Federal Reserve,
  16. his entire job was to watch out
    for problems in the US economy
  17. and to make sure that they
    didn't spin out of control.
  18. So, after 2006,
  19. when real estate prices peaked,
  20. more and more and more
    respected leaders and institutions
  21. started to sound the alarm bells
  22. about risky lending
    and dangerous market bubbles.
  23. As you know, in 2008
    it all came tumbling down.
  24. Banks collapsed,
  25. global stock markets
    lost nearly half their value,
  26. millions and millions of people
    lost their homes to foreclosure.
  27. And at the bottom,
  28. nearly one in 10 Americans
    was out of work.
  29. So after things calmed down a little bit,

  30. Greenspan and many others
    came out with a postmortem and said,
  31. "Nobody could have predicted that crisis."
  32. They called it "a black swan."
  33. Something that was unimaginable,
  34. unforeseeable and completely improbable.
  35. A total surprise.
  36. Except it wasn't always such a surprise.
  37. For example, my Manhattan apartment
    nearly doubled in value
  38. in less than four years.
  39. I saw the writing on the wall
    and I sold it.
  40. (Laughter)

  41. (Applause)

  42. So, a lot of other people
    also saw the warning,

  43. spoke out publicly
  44. and they were ignored.
  45. So we didn't know exactly
    what the crisis was going to look like,
  46. not the exact parameters,
  47. but we could all tell
  48. that the thing coming at us
    was as dangerous, visible and predictable
  49. as a giant gray rhino
    charging right at us.
  50. The black swan lends itself

  51. to the idea that we don't have
    power over our futures.
  52. And unfortunately, the less control
    that we think we have,
  53. the more likely we are to downplay it
  54. or ignore it entirely.
  55. And this dangerous dynamic
    masks another problem:
  56. that most of the problems
    that we're facing
  57. are so probable and obvious,
  58. they're things that we can see,
    but we still don't do anything about.
  59. So I created the gray rhino metaphor

  60. to meet what I felt was an urgent need.
  61. To help us to take a fresh look,
  62. with the same passion
    that people had for the black swan,
  63. but this time, for the things
    that were highly obvious,
  64. highly probable, but still neglected.
  65. Those are the gray rhinos.
  66. Once you start looking for gray rhinos,

  67. you see them in the headlines every day.
  68. And so what I see in the headlines
    is another big gray rhino,
  69. a new highly probable financial crisis.
  70. And I wonder if we've learned anything
    in the last 10 years.
  71. So if you listen
    to Washington or Wall Street,

  72. you could almost be forgiven for thinking
    that only smooth sailing laid ahead.
  73. But in China, where I spend a lot of time,
  74. the conversation is totally different.
  75. The entire economic team,
  76. all the way up to president
    Xi Jinping himself,
  77. talk very specifically and clearly
  78. about financial risks as gray rhinos,
  79. and how they can tame them.
  80. Now, to be sure, China and the US
  81. have very, very different
    systems of government,
  82. which affects what
    they're able to do or not.
  83. And many of the root causes
    for their economic problems
  84. are totally different.
  85. But it's no secret
    that both countries have problems
  86. with debt, with inequality
    and with economic productivity.
  87. So how come the conversations
    are so different?

  88. You could actually ask this question,
  89. not just about countries,
  90. but about just about everyone.
  91. The auto companies that put safety first
  92. and the ones that don't bother
    to recall their shoddy cars
  93. until after people die.
  94. The grandparents who,
    in preparing for the inevitable --
  95. the ones who have the eulogy written,
  96. the menu for the funeral lunch.
  97. (Laughter)

  98. My grandparents did.

  99. (Laughter)

  100. And everything but the final date
    chiseled into the gravestone.

  101. But then you have the grandparents
    on the other side,
  102. who don't put
    their final affairs in order,
  103. who don't get rid of all the junk
  104. they've been hoarding
    for decades and decades
  105. and leave their kids to deal with it.
  106. So what makes the difference
    between one side and the other?

  107. Why do some people
    see things and deal with them,
  108. and the other ones just look away?
  109. So the first one has to do
    with culture, society,
  110. the people around you.
  111. If you think that someone around you
  112. is going to help
    pick you up when you fall,
  113. you're much more likely
    to see a danger as being smaller.
  114. And that allows us to take
    good chances, not just the bad ones.
  115. For example, like risking criticism
  116. when you talk about the danger
    that nobody wants you to talk about.
  117. Or taking the opportunities
    that are kind of scary,
  118. so in their own way are gray rhinos.
  119. So the US has a very
    individualist culture -- go it alone.
  120. And paradoxically,
  121. this makes many Americans
    much less open to change
  122. and taking good risks.
  123. In China, by contrast,
  124. people believe that the government
    is going to keep problems from happening,
  125. which might not always be what happens,
    but people believe it.
  126. They believe they can rely
    on their families,
  127. so that makes them more likely
    to take certain risks.
  128. Like buying Beijing real estate,
  129. or like being more open about the fact
    that they need to change direction,
  130. and in fact, the pace of change in China
    is absolutely amazing.
  131. Second of all,

  132. how much do you know about a situation,
  133. how much are you willing to learn?
  134. And are you willing to see things
    even when it's not what you want?
  135. So many of us are so unlikely
  136. to pay attention to the things
    that we just want to black out,
  137. we don't like them.
  138. We pay attention to what we want to see,
    what we like, what we agree with.
  139. But we have the opportunity
    and the ability
  140. to correct those blind spots.
  141. I spend a lot of time
    talking with people of all walks of life
  142. about the gray rhinos in their life
    and their attitudes.
  143. And you might think
  144. that the people
    who are more afraid of risk,
  145. who are more sensitive to them,
  146. would be the ones
    who would be less open to change.
  147. But the opposite is actually true.
  148. I've found that the people
  149. who are wiling to recognize
    the problems around them
  150. and make plans
  151. are the ones who are able
    to tolerate more risk, good risk,
  152. and deal with the bad risk.
  153. And it's because as we seek information,
  154. we increase our power to do something
    about the things that we're afraid of.
  155. And that brings me to my third point.

  156. How much control do you feel that you have
  157. over the gray rhinos in your life?
  158. One of the reasons we don't act
  159. is that we often feel too helpless.
  160. Think of climate change,
    it can feel so big,
  161. that not a single one of us
    could make a difference.
  162. So some people go about life denying it.
  163. Other people blame everyone
    except themselves.
  164. Like my friend who says
    he's not ever going to give up his SUV
  165. until they stop building
    coal plants in China.
  166. But we have an opportunity to change.
  167. No two of us are the same.
  168. Every single one of us has the opportunity
    to change our attitudes,
  169. our own and those of people around us.
  170. So today, I want to invite all of you

  171. to join me in helping to spark
    an open and honest conversation
  172. with the people around you,
  173. about the gray rhinos in our world,
  174. and be brutally honest
    about how well we're dealing with them.
  175. I hear so many times in the States,
  176. "Well, of course we should
    deal with obvious problems,
  177. but if you don't see
    what's in front of you,
  178. you're either dumb or ignorant."
  179. That's what they say,
    and I could not disagree more.
  180. If you don't see what's in front of you,
  181. you're not dumb, you're not ignorant,
  182. you're human.
  183. And once we all recognize
    that shared vulnerability,
  184. that gives us the power to open our eyes,
  185. to see what's in front of us
  186. and to act before we get trampled.
  187. (Applause)