Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

The Difficult Stairs


Almost seventy years ago, long forgotten labourers cut, carried and lifted two dozen stone slabs onto our hill. It wasn’t our hill back then, of course. The workers built a staircase of stones leading up to a new house to be erected up top. The house still stands. The stairs do too, but, not as straight as the house.

Over the decades those steps have shifted, tilted and cracked with the frost heaves of many winters. Today they are an erratic pile of rocks, sitting at unpredictable angles and slants. First time arrivals view the steps with apprehension; friends and repeat visitors often comment upon them. “Law suits” are sometimes mentioned, as a caution to us about the danger posed.

Such a threat ought to alarm me (being a lawyer) but the truth is, I don’t even notice the alleged hazard posed by these steps, unless someone mentions it. Nor am I convinced that there actually IS a hazard. As a friend noted yesterday, as he picked his way with goatlike care down the haphazard steps, these “difficult stairs” might actually be SAFER than a perfect staircase.

How so? On a perfect staircase (where the flat part is deep and the risers are predictably the same height, and you don’t get seasick climbing up or down), people pick up speed. They take the stairs for granted, go banging up and down them and it’s then, whammo, people make a mistake. Which would hurt on a stone staircase.

But with these somewhat irregular and uncertain stairs, each a different height and many at peculiar angles, one has to step carefully. You cannot, or at least should not, take anything for granted on a staircase where the next step may be nothing like the last one.

Dear old Walter White – drug kingpin of “Breaking Bad” – said it well, in cautioning his brother-in-law Hank about coming after him for various crimes.  Hank expressed astonishment and said he didn’t even know who Walt really was.

If that’s true” Walt said, carefully,”if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course… would be to tread lightly.’

So too my difficult steps. If you don’t know what the next step will bring, maybe your best course would be to tread lightly. And if you do, if you invest considerably more attention to going up and down our difficult steps, then you are very likely NOT to take a tumble.

While my steps may look – and be – hazardous, they are in fact less dangerous than things you pay little mind to. This reminds us where risk really often most erupts: among the familiar, the easy, the things we take for granted. On construction sites, it is often the most experienced, older worker who believing he knows everything, misses the obvious and ends up injured or dead.

This may be true in other realms of life too – what are you most familiar with? What are you taking for granted? What seems easy and obvious to you? If you don’t have to pick and choose your steps carefully, isn’t that where you’re becoming careless?

“Familiarity breeds contempt” it has been said. But familiarity breeds something else too: complacency.  And that is really dangerous. Do you know what you’re about to trip over? It’s probably something you’ve stopped even seeing.

Watch your step, mate.

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This entry was posted on August 10, 2015 by in Decision making.
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