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A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – or is it?

Transcript

Hi, George Swift here. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Have you heard this before? Most of us, we grew up with this, the analogy being really simple, that if I've got my one bird in my hand, I let go of that bird to grab two birds in the bush, and I don't get those two birds, I end up with no birds. In other words, I'm worse off than I was before. Therefore just play it safe and stick with the single bird.

The problem with this thinking, however, is whilst it feels like conventional wisdom - be happy with what you've got - I don't know if you grew up like that, but I certainly did - don't wish for more, be happy with what you've got, don't look at what you haven't got, look at what you're grateful for on your plate today, sort of thing - and whilst it's really important that we are grateful and we acknowledge what we have today, actually, by not looking at what other possibility exists out there, it’s really holding us back from being able to achieve what we otherwise could achieve.

So actually, we want to step into the unknown. We want to sometimes dare to take that risk where we let go of that one bird to give ourselves the opportunity of the two. And when we live in the possibility and the opportunity, the excitement and the passion, of what's possible rather than maybe playing it too safe in the security of what is, now we're open to truly being able to take ourselves and our business to where we want to get it to.

But it's scary. I get it. Back here in the unconscious mind, fear is a huge manipulator – it’s a huge controlling factor of our life. What's known is safe, what's unknown is unsafe. It's an unwritten rule. It's programmed, if you like, into our unconscious. That means that if I've got enough food just to survive today, don't risk that on a big, massive succulent meal for later. Because life is really hard.

It's like if you've got something now, capitalize on the now. We were hunter gatherers - opportunistic - our survival, just like most of the animal kingdom is still today, our survival was minute by minute, moment by moment, but not week, month, year by year. And therefore we inherently have this thing where rather letting go of what I've got to embrace the opportunity and the possibility, and yeah, a degree of risk of what could be, I'll stick with what is.

This can sometimes imprison people in real suffering. If what they've got right now isn't that great, or if what they've got right now is actually pretty harmful to them, we still naturally hold on to that thing because we're scared of losing the degree of comfort and security that we do have, even if it's a terrible situation. People stay in jobs way too long. People stay in marriages for way too long.

We hang around in places, not because it's painful and therefore we want to get out, we stay because there's a degree of perceived safety still in that situation, even though it doesn't make necessarily any cognitive sense. The reason being it's the unknown. When we step into the unknown, the unknown is perceived as automatically unsafe and what is known is perceived as automatically safe. Why? Because you're still here.

When our survival was literally life and death on a moment by moment basis, whatever I did to get to this point - 10, 20, 30, 40 years of life - whatever I did to get to this point, clearly it was working.

The fact that mum and dad were able to still be alive and have me meant that I didn't want to challenge or question anything. I just copy what they do because clearly it works. From an evolutionary principle, it works. If you're able to stay alive, have children and raise your children, that's success. And therefore, no matter what else is going on in that environment, if you're able to achieve that, the unconscious will say, right, let's stick with the status quo, let's stick with what we've got.

However, we don't live a life that is that physically dangerous anymore. And therefore we want to be open to opportunity and possibility. We play it too safe with our little bird here, then we miss out on all the opportunities out there right now.

This isn't about taking every bird, throwing it away and going out there like a crazy fool, right? This is about being calculated. This is about you being discerning with which birds you hold onto and which ones you let go to create opportunity.

But the truth of the matter is, the risk involved in this analogy is nowhere near what you think it is. The risk you believe and perceive, and everyone perceives is, if I let go of that bird, I end up with no birds. So the idea is that the brain is saying - because it's always risk averse - it's saying we either keep one bird or we have no birds. It doesn't really factor in the chances of getting two birds.

But there's a degree of excitement there. So what it says is, we either have one bird, definitely, or we may get two birds. If not, we definitely end up with no birds. And the risk of no birds will outweigh the opportunity of two birds and it will outweigh the letting go of the one bird that you have right now. So we end up playing it too safe.

Let me just break down what the actual statistics of this equation is. It's not as risky as you think it is. Actually, there are two birds in the bush. So if I let go of one bird, I have one chance or opportunity of getting two birds. I also have one chance of getting one bird, but I also have one chance of getting the other bird.

So actually, in this situation, I have three chances of having one bird. I either keep the bird I have, or I get one bird in the bush or the other bird in the bush, or I get both birds, or I get no birds. So the chance of getting no birds is actually really unlikely in this equation, but no one told you this when you were a kid, they just said, don't let go of that one because you end up with nothing.

No, no, no. If you let go with this one, you've got the same chance of getting one bird as you have the other bird and the same chance of getting one bird as getting no birds. That's right. Does this make sense? (I’m getting caught up in my maths here.) So in fact, the permutations of this problem playing out are, I keep the one I have, I get one of the birds, I get the other bird, I get both birds, or I get no birds.

Now the risk of having no birds is actually really unlikely. Isn't it? I mean, it's still a possibility, I get that. But it's no longer the probability that we maybe were perceiving this at.

So when you're in business and you're playing it really safe, it's not normally a case of, I lose everything or I keep what I've got, and maybe there's a chance that I win - that's a completely disproportionate evaluation of the risk and therefore we're going to naturally be risk averse. Actually, the most likely thing is you're going to win to some degree. That's the most likely outcome.

With the birds, the most likely outcome is you end up with one bird, right? So that covers it. That's my risk assessment. The most likely outcome is I get one bird, but there's also a chance that I get two birds. But that seems much more exciting. So I've got one bird here, I let go of that, the most likely outcome is I get one bird, but actually there's an equal chance that I could potentially get two birds as there was getting no birds at all. Well, now that feels like a good place. That's a decent bet. Isn't it?

So the chances are you have one bird, which is what you started out from. There's a small chance you're going to end up with no birds and there's a small chance you're going to end up with all the birds. So actually there's a graduated level of risk in there. I'm not saying, for example, it's still the right thing to do. I'm just trying to say, we need to get involved in our thinking about things like risk and fear, because more often than not, the unconscious is not weighing up the true statistical analysis of success and failure. What it's looking at is, I've got this, this is safe. I let go of this, this is unsafe. Whilst I might win, I'm probably going to lose. That's the natural default because the brain puts a disproportionate weighting to the risk rather than to the reward itself.

I hope that makes sense. That’s my tongue twister of statistical analysis right there. Okay. If you're a mathematician, you can tell me if I'm wrong, but basically the permutation, I believe, is one out of four chances that you are going to end up with nothing. There's one out of four chances that you end up with both birds. And there's a two out of four, and that's a 50, 50 chance, that you end up with one bird. In other words, you are more likely to end up with some birds than you are no birds. And that starts to feel like a risk, a gamble, maybe worth taking.

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