6. Understand Linked Systems
In complex systems, small changes can have large, unpredictable effects. I wrote an article for Adventure (September 2002) about an accident on Mount Hood in which a four-man team fell from just below the summit while roped together. On the way down, they caught a two-man team and dragged them down too. Three hundred feet below, the falling mass of people and rope caught another three-man team. Everyone wound up in a vast crevasse. Then, during the ensuing rescue attempt by the military, an Air Force Reserve Pave Hawk helicopter crashed and rolled down the mountain. Because of the complex and coupled nature of the system in which all these people and all this equipment were operating, what had begun as a slip of one man’s foot wound up killing three people, severely injuring others, and costing taxpayers millions in the rescue effort. Accidents are bound to happen. But they don’t have to happen to you if you recognize your role in a system. Driving bumper to bumper at highway speeds, waiting for someone to tap his brakes and start a chain reaction accident is one example. Having a retirement account heavily invested in the stock market is another. A small move by a few investors can send everyone stampeding for the door. Being aware of such systems and analyzing the forces involved can often reveal that we’re doing something much riskier than it seems.