Thursday, January 15, 2009

What I learnt in 2008

There is a saying in cricket that, if you are going to go for a big, shot go at it hard. This might sound obvious, but there is a tendency among batsmen, even when deciding to play a specific shot, of not committing to it fully, in the hope that they can prevent themselves from making a mistake as they strike the ball. But it is often hesitation, coupled with a lack of confidence, that can be a batsman’s downfall.

So what has this got do with what I learned in 2008? Let me explain.

The year 2008 will be remembered for the collapse of the global economy, with giants such as Lehman Brothers going under. But it was also the year of the bail-out, with governments pouring trillions into failing banks. Apparently, without the bail-outs, a ripple effect could have ensued, destabilising the entire economy and resulting in mass unemployment.

So the lesson is that, if you are going to undertake a business venture, do it on as big a scale as possible. The more people tied into your transactions and borrowings, the more likely someone will come to your aid. Being in R1-billion debt is not too different to being in R1 000 debt if you cannot pay your dues. In other words, and paying homage to McDonalds, if you are going to go for it, go large.

Robert Mugabe has successfully employed the 'go large' strategy too, coupling it with a passionate belief that he is doing the best for his people. But Mugabe, in the words of blogger and UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, proves that “there is no more destructive force in human affairs – not greed, not hatred – than the desire to have been right”. But believing one is right is often not based on rational thought.

Robert Burton, a neurologist and author of On Being Certain, argues that although we may feel we know something and we think it is a product of reason, this is generally not the case. Scientific evidence suggests that feelings of certainty stem from primitive parts of the brain. These parts of the brain are independent of reasoning and conscious reflection. In other words, the feeling of being right is about emotion and is a psychological state.

This suggests that we should be wary of our own belief in certainty, whether this concerns politics or economics. Sadly, however, 2008 taught me the irrational opposite. When it comes to making money and furthering a political ideology or cause, it seems that fortune favours those who believe, whether misguided or not, that they are right and pursue their goals with vigour.

At the end of 2008, the Israeli government put this into practice by killing over 500 people (most of them civilians) in ten days, apparently to prevent Hamas from sending rockets into Israel. But, according to journalist Robert Fisk, Hamas's home-made rockets have killed just 20 Israelis in eight years, making the response savagely disproportionate. Of course, Israeli deaths are a tragedy too, but the overwhelming force used by Israel, besides other factors, seems to have stunned the international community into silence.

So this is my advice for 2009: whatever you decide to do, do it with the force of a hurricane and the confidence of a prizefighter, who cares nothing for consequence. The world likes single-minded arrogance, or at least does not act against it and sometimes even rewards it.

Fly as high as you can in 2009 and forget about bombed children, unemployed labourers and those with cholera in Zimbabwe because, after all, falling from 100 m has the same result as crashing to the earth from 100 000 m. What is more, flying at 100 000 m with gay abandon is a lot more exhilarating and seemingly no one will try to stop you, in case they crash and burn too.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 January 2009 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

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