As a business owner, coach, mentor, leader, father, and husband I have known many ups and downs in life. The past few days and weeks have been no excepction to that journey, with extreme highs and lows. Throughout it all I have always believed that you need people in your life who will walk with you on the journey. People who will pick you up and encourage you but also people who might think differently than you and challenge your ideas. I have several people in my life who fit that description and I cherish each one of them.
When one of our long term members, Rich Appert, asked if he could write a few things about the current COVID-19 crisis I was more than happy to listen. I am grateful for him and for the rest of our diverse community at Whole Strength. When reading this I was challenged to think through some things and my hope is that this article will leave you feeling more empowered. Let us always be a people who will challenge our minds as much as we challenge our bodies.
Read his blog below:
The Case for Closing: A Member’s Perspective
When gambling, think about what’s probable
When hedging, think about what’s plausible
When preparing, think about what’s possible
Good morning Whole Strength family. As your friend, fellow sufferer, and workout nemesis (in some cases), I wanted to send a short note in response to the decision to suspend in person group operations at the gym for a brief period. Like many of you, I was personally conflicted arounds news of closures coming from across the country. I assumed it was only a matter of time until Tennessee was experiencing the same mandates and we were all faced with needing to get creative in this particular segment of our lives. That said, when Ryan made what I know to be the incredibly difficult (and likely unpopular with members) decision to proactively shutter his small business at significant personal risk out of concern for his member’s long term well-being and for the well-being of his local community, I felt compelled to offer my support as a long time paying customer, occasional critic, and friend of both WSCF and the Stemper family. I personally requested the opportunity to reach out to each of you, no one asked me to do this.
Why should you listen to me?
I’m not a doctor. I’m not a virologist. I’m not an epidemiologist. The interesting thing is that there is currently no real censuses among any of these groups regarding what we currently face as a global society. I am a businessman. I currently work as a Senior Vice President for a large public healthcare company. I attribute whatever success I’ve experienced to good mentors, some dumb luck, and just being old (at this point). In the simplest manner of speaking, people in my line of work focus on data, algorithms, and complex systems to achieve our business objectives. In my case I’m interacting with 600 facilities on two continents and overseeing approximately 150 employees spread across 40 states with the objective of promoting access to quality mental health and substance use disorder treatment. We have been very successful. So I get to work with data, and risk, and complex systems on a daily basis. I am an amateur geek when it comes to these topics and in this crowd, there is 100% consensus on the appropriate response to COVID-19. I would argue that when dealing with a mostly unknown pathogen spreading across a global network at this point (i.e. a “complex system”) we should be listening to the folks who are experienced on risk and complex systems, even before we listen to the arguing MDs. Their message is unambiguous: be extremely cautious, eliminate connectivity (i.e. “social distance”), and implement widespread testing.
Isn’t the potential risk overblown?
For most decisions when the various outcomes are well known to us, we rely on data and probabilities to drive our decision making. We know that in systems that are replicable, we can produce a desired outcome over the long run by focusing on the individual constituents or variables of the system. Dealing with risk is similar: I can look at the last couple decades of data on automobile fatalities and give you a pretty good forecast for fatalities over the next few years. In addition, barring a massive uptick in the production of cars or in our population, the probability of automobile fatalities tripling over the next 6 months in our state or country is zero (or very, very close to zero). The same can’t be said for risks from unknown pathogens. These types of risks follow a different distribution when we chart them. What we see over time, is that while the probability of an extreme outcome is still pretty unlikely, it is much higher than it is in well-known risks like automobile deaths or diabetes etc. We just don’t know much at all right now. We don’t have an accurate mortality rate, we don’t know about effective treatments, and we don’t know about long term impacts on survivors of severe cases.
If probability of a really bad outcome is low, isn’t closing the gym a bit much?
No. We’ve established now that this risk is unique from normal everyday risks we face. Because of this, we can’t use probability to drive our decisions and we can’t compare unknown risks to well-known risks when trying to make decisions around what’s best for everyone in our community. This is a big departure for someone like me who just told you his entire business approach is based on this type of thinking. In risk, we also have to consider the magnitude of losing. Sometimes, there is risk on both sides of a decision but the one side is significantly worse than the other. If someone offered me $100 to play Russian roulette, the correct thing to do from a probabilistic standpoint is to take the bet. 5 out of 6 times I will win $100. From a risk/complex systems standpoint, the correct thing to do is (obviously) to not take the bet as losing will lead to ruin. There will be no more games of Russian roulette if I lose. No more burpees. No more failed muscle ups in the Open. It’s all over.
Similarly, when dealing with risks that have a low but way higher than normal chance of extreme outcomes, we have to err on the side of caution. If we don’t, it’s a mathematical certainty that eventually we will experience an extreme outcome (just like it’s a mathematical certainty that eventually we lose if play Russian roulette). It may not be this time with COVID-19, but eventually it will happen. This is not conjecture. There is consensus among everyone who studies these systems on this point. For this reason, don’t pay attention when someone compares the relatively low number of COVID-19 fatalities to things like diabetes or falling off a ladder. Those folks likely mean well but they simply don’t understand risk.
Ok, but we are a healthy group, shouldn’t we be ok?
Our individual risk of a severe outcome is very low. One thing we do know with certainty about COVID-19 is that it spreads easily. Its basic reproduction number (how easily it spreads) is higher than many pathogens with which we are more familiar. We also know that it is already spreading in our local community with confirmed cases at other gyms in town. Because of this, over time our individual risk will go up if no action is taken. That is, there will be convergence of our individual risk and systemic risk. This is yet another reason why you can’t compare COVID-19 with the risk of dying in an automobile accident. If your neighbor is to perish in a fiery wreck, your chance of doing the same does not go up. But if your neighbor (or gym pal) is to contract COVID-19, you chance to contract the illness goes way up as does the chance of everyone in your personal network, including the elderly or compromised. I wanted to avoid any moral pleas in this note, but this is one point I can’t skip. If we are truly a community, we need to think about not only what is best for us as individuals but we need to think about our peers and their families. This is the principled thing to do. That said, even if we have super selfish members in our gang (doubtful) and one has made it this far in this letter, know that for every day that new cases continue to rise exponentially and the gym stays open, your chance for getting sick and getting your family sick goes up.
So now what?
Like all of you, I’m hoping this is a short term arrangement. I have no idea what will happen and I’m obviously not part of the staff so I’m awaiting further instruction from Ryan just like the rest of you. None of us can do this forever or even for an extended period. But know this, neither can Ryan and Michelle. This is their livelihood. We have no clue what the short term outcome of this decision will be but we know Ryan made it from an ethical place, out of concern for us, and in the face of significant personal risk. We could all cancel tomorrow and go to a gym that doesn’t care that much about its members or the type of risk we’re facing and just hope for the best.
I’m no cheerleader. Those of you who know me will testify to that. I don’t always agree with every decision the team at WSCF makes. I always let Ryan know though (just ask him!! Ha) …sometimes he may change things based on my feedback or yours, and sometimes he doesn’t. It’s his business. At the core of every good business is the generation of value for its customers. I would like a couple more assault bikes and more open gym, but I’ve been a member at a box with both those things and my experience wasn’t nearly as positive as it has been at WSCF. This decision, while inconvenient, makes me feel valued as a human being first and a customer second. This is why I stick with Ryan, Michelle, and their team. This is why we should all stick with WSCF.