As I See It: The Pros and Cons of Doing Nothing
November 13, 2017 Victor Rozek
In an era when information circles the globe in seconds, and distant events are posted and assessed within minutes, it is unimaginable that all of humanity owes an incalculable debt to a man who essentially remains unknown – for an action that didn’t occur.
The year was 1983, a dangerous and bellicose time. Russia had just shot down a Korean Airliner with 269 people aboard, and the Cold War was still under full simmer. Khrushchev had once promised to bury the United States and now Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and vowed to “write the final pages” of Soviet history. Tensions were sufficiently high that the Soviets had adopted an unprecedented “launch on warning” strategy, meaning a full retaliatory nuclear strike would be initiated at the first hint of American missile activity.
It was in this context that Stanislav Petrov stared in horror at the single word flashing on his computer screen: LAUNCH. A Soviet satellite had picked up the release of five US missiles. Colonel Petrov’s job was to immediately inform his commanding officer who would then issue orders for the retaliatory strike. Time was of the essence. Once American missiles hit their targets, a counter strike might not be possible.
But Petrov hesitated. The technology was new, and surely if the Americans had launched a preemptive strike, they would have fired more than five missiles. Still, he couldn’t be certain. So he waited. Against all training and expectation he waited for an agonizing 23 minutes to see if Soviet surface radar would confirm the launch. It did not. And the world survived another day without nuclear war.
Unarguably, the most important contribution Stanislav Petrov made during his lifetime was his decision not to take action.
After reading Gwynne Dyer’s capable account of this event (The Man Who Saved the World), I began to wonder how many times in my own life has doing nothing (or doing less) proved to be of greater value than rushing toward action.
Of course it’s not always possible to predict the scenery on the road not taken. What is the value of not having that extra drink before driving home? Or saving a friendship by not acting on gossip? The value of doing nothing is not always as clear cut as refusing to adopt a baby alligator, or being reluctant to start a nuclear holocaust.
But sometimes the wisdom of not taking a particular action is spectacularly clear. Captain “Sully” Sullenburger’s fateful landing on the Hudson River was preceded by his improbable decision not to attempt an airport return. The survival of 155 passengers and crew depended as much on what Sully didn’t do, as what he ended up doing.
Self-evident or not, there are many contexts in which doing less results in greater value downstream. Creativity, for example, requires energy gathered during times of quiet refection, a fact often overlooked in the workplace where achievement is more valued when it appears to be exhausting and frenetic. Inspiration, however, is seldom born of hectic activity. Likewise, productivity requires muffling the static long enough to at least think clearly and act without interruption.
Less can also become more by virtue of intention. Martial arts masters deliberately walk away from provocation. Spiritual masters retreat into silence and solitude. People who don’t rush to sell off their stock portfolios when the market falls fare better over the long term than reactive investors. In relationships (whether between couples or nations), those who can disengage rather than escalate an argument are more likely to settle their differences peacefully.
There is, however, a potential downside to doing nothing if the choice stems solely from timidity. In economics, Decision Theory proposes that “risk aversion is the price people pay for avoiding regret.” It’s one of the reasons people remain stuck. But the inherent fallacy of avoiding regret by inaction is the belief that doing nothing will guarantee the retention of the status quo. If I don’t go to the doctor, my health will remain as it is. If I don’t expand my company into new markets, I will maintain my current market share. If I don’t improve my product line I’ll continue to enjoy steady sales. Faced with the possibility of economic loss, people tend to protect the status quo rather than risk it for the prospect of something better. The status quo becomes the base line. Preventing its loss is more important than risking for gain – even when the odds are favorable.
The price of timidity will be expressed in some combination of regret, frustration, and envy. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Danny Kahneman called them “the emotions of unrealized possibility.” How intensely those emotions are felt depends on the appeal and closeness of the desired alternative. In other words, the proximity to a better reality intensifies emotions of loss. For example, being one of two finalists considered for a major promotion and not getting it. Likewise, ignoring personal investment opportunities that turn out to be profitable. Not taking a job at an uncertain startup, that later becomes highly successful. Or, failing to act on new market opportunities (like IBM missing out on the second PC revolution). Whether personal or corporate, timidity can sometimes reverberate for a lifetime, particularly in relationships.
A number of women have confided to me over the years that they knew they were making a terrible mistake at the altar, but with family and friends gathered expecting a wedding, they felt they could not stop the proceedings. In some cases, timidity cost them decades of unhappiness.
There is one other aspect to Stanislav Petrov’s refusal to act that has particular relevance in our time: Petrov didn’t trust technology. He understood that even the best technology of his time was prone to errors. And while today’s technology is far less prone to generating false data, it is far more likely to disseminate it.
Fake news has become a global industry, and while Petrov was forced to make a decision with too little useful information, we are now glutted with too much useless information. Petrov’s invaluable example was his willingness to wait for verification, even when the waiting was intolerable.
Petrov died in Moscow in May of this year. After the initial relief of avoiding a nuclear war dissipated, the man who saved the world by doing nothing was reprimanded and eventually forced out of the military. He died a poor pensioner who, at the end of his life, lived in a squalid apartment.
But he is no less a hero for that. Faced with uncertainty, in a moment of great peril, his inaction remains the most profound example of the value of doing nothing.