Monday, September 22, 2008

Personal Wild Cards

What is a wild card? Futurists describe a wild card event as a low probability, high impact event. Very unlikely to happen, but if it does you won’t forget it soon. Winning the lottery, becoming a parent of quadruplets, being caught up in a war or a natural disaster, or an unexpected inheritance all qualify as personal wild card events.

And why should you be interested in wild cards if they are not likely to happen? Well, actually, I should have said “low probability.”

And why do I bring up wild cards?

This is hurricane season in Texas. For years, I’ve had hurricanes on our wild card list, and we have a contingency plan. This year, we got a direct hit from Hurricane Dolly. Our children and grandchildren in Houston were hit by Hurricane Ike.

The point here is that wild cards do happen.

So when you are thinking about your future, you should try to consider/anticipate your potential wildcards. Here are a few thoughts that have been helpful to me.
1- Which wild cards are plausible or even possible? You only have to put multiple births on your list if there is going to be a pregnancy. If you don’t live near a coastline, you shouldn’t have to consider hurricanes, although you may have other natural forces to think about. If you don’t buy lottery tickets, you know you won’t win the lottery. So you can eliminate a lot of possibilities because they are not only unlikely but nearly impossible.

2- Look in each of your personal domains, the areas of your life where there are forces that bring about events. (Activities, Finances, Health, Housing, Social, Transportation). Ask yourself, “What are the potential wildcards for this domain?” As I mentioned, hurricanes are one of my wild cards, so I’ll keep that example as we go on here.

3- Once you’ve identified some wild cards, think about some “If…then…” strategies. (If this event happens, then my strategy will be…”) Back to hurricanes. Personally, we have contingency plans for hurricanes. First, we carry insurance on our home and belongings. A high deductible keeps premiums low. Second, when we see that a hurricane may hit our area, we protect our home by covering the windows with plywood and bringing outdoor potted plants, hanging stuff, and furniture inside so it can’t crash into something. Third, we pack the car and leave town to spend a few days with family not likely to be impacted by the storm. Fourth, we also have some backup in case we can’t get out of town. Emergency supplies and equipment, so we have food, light, radio, etc. When Dolly arrived, she was a late bloomer. The forecast was for a tropical storm and we got a category II (just barely) hurricane. So we went to our backup plan.

So there are some of the practical steps for dealing with wild cards:
a- Identify possible wild card events in your future.
b- Make contingency plans—If…then…
c- Execute the plan if the wild card event occurs.

Now let’s go back to “high impact events.” Psychologists have conducted research to determine which events in our lives have the greatest impacts on our lives. One study, published in 1967 by Holmes and Rahe established The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. If you Google “Social Readjustment Rating Scale,” you’ll find several entries that include the list with the rankings for each event. Miller and Rahe followed that study in 1997 with an updated version.

The life event ranked highest for impact is “death of a spouse.” If you are young, or even middle aged, this is probably a wild card. If you are in your 80s or your spouse is in bad health (or a very reckless driver), then the event may be more plausible with a greater need for a contingency plan.

Other high impact events on the Holmes-Rahe scale include divorce or separation, jail or incarceration, death of a family member, and major illness or injury. Marriage is at the exact center of the scale.

Now, back to hurricanes. Low probability, high impact events.

A lot of people in Texas had contingency plans for a hurricane. They secured their homes, had emergency supplies and equipment (lots of people in Texas own gas powered generators), and evacuated to higher ground.

A whole lot of people had no plan. Some couldn’t evacuate because they didn’t have transportation, didn’t have anywhere to go (or any money for gas, food, hotel, etc.) or were trapped by early flooding. Some wouldn’t evacuate from high risk areas. Fear of looters, couldn’t afford to travel or had a macho “bring it on!” attitude, or maybe a death wish. Many of those people just did not understand the risks. Maybe they didn’t understand “storm surge” which temporarily raises the level of the ocean and any adjacent bays or waterways.

The lesson here is that when you think about high impact events, it can be helpful to do scenarios, even mini-scenarios: What’s the worst case? What’s the best? A futures wheel can be helpful as well to help you explore the impacts of events. I’ve developed a Personal Futures Wheel that reminds you to explore impacts of events on all six of your personal domains. You can download an example (free) at

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