We all get lucky. Once in a while we do something really stupid that could have resulted in death, but didn’t. Just the other day, I saw someone who was texting walk out into oncoming traffic, narrowly avoiding the car whose driver slammed on the brakes. As the adrenaline starts to dissipate, we realize that we don’t ever want to be in that situation again. What can we do? We can make the most of our second chances by building margins of safety into our lives.
What is a margin of safety and where can I get one?
The concept is a cornerstone of engineering. Engineers design systems to withstand significantly more emergencies, unexpected loads, misuse, or degradation than would normally be expected.
Take a bridge. You are designing a bridge to cross just under two hundred feet of river. The bridge has two lanes going in each direction. Given the average car size, the bridge could reasonably carry 50 to 60 cars at a time. At 4,000 pounds per car, your bridge needs to be able to carry at least 240,000 pounds of weight; otherwise, don’t bother building it. So that’s the minimum consideration for safety — but only the worst engineer would stop there.
Can anyone walk across your bridge? Can anyone park their car on the shoulder? What if cars get heavier? What if 20 cement trucks are on the bridge at the same time? How does the climate affect the integrity of your materials over time? You don’t want the weight capacity of the bridge to ever come close to the actual load. Otherwise, one seagull decides to land on the railing and the whole structure collapses.
Considering these questions and looking at the possibilities is how you get the right information so you can adjust your specs to build in a margin of safety. That’s the difference between what your system is expected to withstand and what it actually could. So when you are designing a bridge, the first step is to figure out the maximum load it should ever see (bumper-to-bumper vehicles, hordes of tourist groups, and birds perched wing to wing), and then you design for at least double that load.
Knowing that the infrastructure was designed to withstand significantly more than the anticipated maximum load makes us happy when we are on bridges, or in airplanes, or jumping on the bed in our second-story bedroom. We feel confident that many smart people have conspired to make these activities as safe as possible. We’re so sure of this that it almost never crosses our minds. Sure, occasional accidents happen. But it is remarkably reassuring that these structures can withstand quite a bit of the unexpected.
So how do we make ourselves a little more resilient? Less susceptible to the vagaries of change? Turns out that engineers aren’t the only ones obsessed with building in margins of safety. Spies are pretty good at it, too, and we can learn a lot from them.
Operation Kronstadt, by Harry Ferguson, chronicles the remarkable story of Paul Dukes, the only British secret agent working in Russia in 1919, and the equally amazing adventures of the small team that was sent in to rescue him.
Paul Dukes was not an experienced spy. He was actually a pianist. It was his deep love of Russian culture that led to him to approach his government and volunteer for the mission of collecting information on Bolshevik activities in St. Petersburg. As Ferguson writes, “Paul had no military experience, let alone any experience of intelligence work and yet they were going to send him back into one of the toughest espionage environments in the world.”
However, MI6, the part of British Intelligence that Paul worked for, wasn’t exactly the powerful and well-prepared agency that it’s portrayed as today. Consider this description by Ferguson: “having dragged Paul out of Russia, MI6 did not appear to have given much thought to how he should get back or how he would survive once he got there: ‘As to the means whereby you gain access to the country, under what cover you will live there, and how you will send out reports, we shall leave it to you, being best informed as to the conditions’.”
So off went Paul into Russia, not as a musician but as a spy. No training, no gadgets, no emergency network, no safe houses. Just a bunch of money and sentiments of ‘good luck’. So it is all the more amazing that Paul Dukes turned out to be an excellent spy. After reading his story, I think the primary reason for this is that he learned extremely quickly from his experiences. One of the things he learned quickly was how to build margins of safety into his tradecraft.
There is no doubt that the prospect of death wakes us up. We don’t often think about how dangerous something can be until we almost die doing it. Then, thanks to our big brains that let us learn from experience, we adapt. We recognize that if we don’t, we might not be so lucky next time. And no one wants to rely on luck as a survival strategy.
This is where margins of safety come in. We build them to reduce the precariousness of chance.
Imagine you are in St. Petersburg in 1919. What you have going for you is that you speak the language, understand the culture, and know the streets. Your major problem is that you have no idea how to start this spying thing. How do you get contacts and build a network in a city that is under psychological siege? The few names you have been given come from dubious sources at the border, and the people attached to those names may have been compromised, arrested, or both. You have nowhere to sleep at night, and although you have some money, it can’t buy anything, not even food, because there is nothing for sale. The whole country is on rations.
Not to mention, if by some miracle you actually get a few good contacts who give you useful information, how do you get it home? There are no cell phones or satellites. Your passport is fake and won’t hold up to any intense scrutiny, yet all your intelligence has to be taken out by hand from a country that has sealed its borders. And it’s 1919. You can’t hop on a plane or drive a car. Train or foot are your only options.
This is what Paul Dukes faced. Daunting to be sure. Which is why his ultimate success reads like the improbable plot of a Hollywood movie. Although he made mistakes, he learned from them as they were happening.
Consider this tense moment as described by Ferguson:
The doorbell in the flat rang loudly and Paul awoke with a start.
He had slept late. Stepanova had kindly allowed him sleep in one of the spare beds and she had even found him an old pair of Ivan's pyjamas. There were no sheets, but there were plenty of blankets and Paul had been cosy and warm. Now it was 7.45 a.m., and here he was half-asleep and without his clothes. Suppose it was the Cheka [Russian Bolshevik Police] at the door? In a panic he realised that he had no idea what to do. The windows of the apartment were too high for him to jump from and like a fool he had chosen a hiding place with no other exits. … He was reduced to waiting nervously as he stood in Ivan's pyjamas whilst Stepanova shuffled to the door to find out who it was. As he stood there with his stomach in knots, Paul swore that he would never again sleep in a place from which there was only one exit.
One exit was good enough for normal, anticipated use. But one exit wouldn't allow him to adapt to the unexpected, the unusual load produced by the appearance of the state police. So from then on, his sleeping accommodations were chosen with a minimum margin of safety of two exits.
This type of thinking dictated a lot of his actions. He never stayed at the same house more than two nights in a row, and often moved after just one night. He arranged for the occupants to signal him, such as by placing a plant in the window, if they believed the house was unsafe. He siloed knowledge as much as he could, never letting the occupants of one safe house know about the others. Furthermore, as Ferguson writes:
He also arranged a back-up plan in case the Cheka finally got him. He had to pick one trustworthy agent … and soon Paul began entrusting her with all the details of his movements and told her at which safe house he would be sleeping so that if he did disappear MI6 would have a better idea of who had betrayed him. He even used her as part of his courier service and she hid all his reports in the float while he was waiting for someone who could take them out of the country.
Admittedly this plan didn’t provide a large margin of safety, but at least he wasn’t so arrogant as to assume he was never going to get captured.
Large margins of safety are not always possible. Sometimes they are too expensive. Sometimes they are not available. Dukes liked to have an extra identity handy should some of his dubious contacts turn him in, but this wasn’t always an option in a country that changed identity papers frequently. Most important, though, he was aware that planning for the unexpected was his best chance of staying alive, even if he couldn’t always put in place as large a margin of safety as he would have liked. And survival was a daily challenge, not something to take for granted.
The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant taught us a lot about being cavalier regarding margins of safety. The unexpected is just that: not anticipated. That doesn’t mean it is impossible or even improbable. The unexpected is not the worst thing that has happened before. It is the worst thing, given realistic parameters such as the laws of physics, that could happen.
In the Fukushima case, the margin of safety was good enough to deal with the weather of the recent past. But preparing for the worst we have seen is not the same as preparing for the worst.
The Fukushima power plant was overwhelmed by a tsunami, creating a nuclear disaster on par with Chernobyl. Given the seismic activity in the area, although a tsunami wasn’t predictable, it was certainly possible. The plant could have been designed with a margin of safety to better withstand a tsunami. It wasn’t. Why? Because redundancy is expensive. That’s the trade-off. You are safer, but it costs more money.
Sometimes when the stakes are low, we decide the trade-off isn’t worth it. For instance, maybe we wouldn’t pay to insure a wedding ring that wasn’t expensive. You would think, however, that power plants wouldn’t cut it close. The consequences of a lost ring are some emotional pain and the cost of a new one. The consequences of a nuclear accident are exponentially higher. Lives are lost, and the environment corrupted. In the Fukushima case, the world will be dealing with the negative effects for a long time.
What decisions would you make differently if you were factoring safety margins into your life? To be fair, you can’t put them everywhere. Otherwise, your life might be all margin and no living. But you can identify the maximum load your life is currently designed to withstand and figure out how close to it you are coming.
For example, having your expenses equal 100 percent of your income is allowing you no flexibility in the load you have to carry. A job loss, a bad flood in your neighborhood, or significant sickness are all unexpected events that would change the load your financial structure has to support. Without a margin of safety, such as a healthy savings or investment account, you could find your structure collapsing, compromising the roof over your head.
The idea is to identify the unlikely but possible risks to your survival and build margins of safety that will allow you to continue your lifestyle should these things come to pass. That way, a missed paycheck will be easily absorbed instead of jeopardizing your ability to put food on the table.
To figure out where else you should build margins of safety into your life, think of the times you’ve been terrified and desperate. Those might be good places to start learning from experience and making the most of your second chances.