Society’s Warning Signs

Las Vegas doesn’t get a lot of rain – about four inches per year – but when it does rain here, it sometimes comes down in torrents. Homeless people have been known to sleep in the city’s drainage areas and have been been washed away and drowned during heavy rains. My ex-wife was involved in coordinating local search teams to find the bodies.

I’ve seen signs posted near these drainage areas, warning of the dangers. But some people either don’t read them or ignore them, and they occasionally lose their lives because of it.

Most days the dangers seem nonexistent – it’s mostly sun, sun, and more sun here. But it only takes one flooding incident to end a life. You can be right 10,000 times, but it’s that one time you’re surprised that makes the math turn against you.

You can, however, avoid this risk entirely – mainly by learning from the experiences of others. You can become aware that flooding does occur in these drainage areas, and people have been surprised and died from that flooding. And you can choose to avoid making that same type of mistake.

This requires some trust – trusting history, trusting science, trusting math, trusting government, or trusting other people. If you find a reason not to trust, you can more easily dismiss the warning signs. Then you can justify taking more risk, which could lead to an early death if you’re wrong just once.

Many warning signs were created because someone got hurt or killed, and the creation of a warning was a reaction to that event. Often it takes multiple similar events to finally lead to a warning sign.

Cigarette boxes have prominent warning labels because many people have died from smoking. You can ignore or downplay those warnings. You can label them a conspiracy. But you only have to be wrong once to end up the fool.

Notice that in some areas of life, reality does put up warning labels. It cautions you about various problems and risks.

Wear a seatbelt.

Don’t use a phone while driving.

Don’t smoke.

Don’t spend more than you earn.

Don’t drink wine laced with iocane powder (unless you’ve developed an immunity).

Perhaps the latest warning from society is: Wear a mask. Why do we have this rule now? Because people have died from doing the opposite.

You can frame society’s warnings as restrictions on your freedom, conspiracies, or attempts to control you. Or you can recognize where these warnings actually came from. Some people figured they could be right indefinitely, and they were mostly accurate… except for that one time they were wrong and then dead.

Society doesn’t typically jump into creating warnings for rare or exotic failures. It’s more likely that unusual circumstances will be dismissed as bad luck or random flukes. But repeated failures that align with patterns will eventually get some attention, which may lead to a warning, rule, or law being created.

When you have a very low probability of failure, but it’s for an action you’ll take many times over, the long-term risk of eventually experiencing a single failure (possibly a fatal one) could be significant. So do consider leaning on the wisdom of large numbers, which are often codified in society’s warnings. They may help you steer clear of foolish mistakes.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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