A bear is not a toy – and other regrettable mistakes

Timothy Treadwell loved grizzly bears.

This New York-born romantic summered along Alaskan salmon streams, filming himself at the wildest, free-rangiest petting zoo on Earth. Most of his videos show him trembling with excitement as he explains why a furry, 900-pound assassin is nuzzling at his pocket. “I understand the bears,” he’d giggle, “And they understand me.”

Biologists and park rangers, people who actually understand a thing or two about bears, warned Treadwell that fondling the overly clawed omnivores was dangerous. “They’ll eat you, Timothy” the biologists said. “They’ll eat you,” the rangers said. Then, in October 2003, the thinkable happened.

A bear ate Timothy Treadwell.

Some quick-witted REI types will point out that there’s a lesson here: You can’t trust a grizzly bear. But that isn’t really useful, is it? I mean, we already knew that. I wouldn’t lend a bear $2 ‘till payday, let alone have him over for a weekend barbecue. There’s a better lesson here, a life and business lesson: Learn from the experience of others.

Think back to our primitive past. When the first cave man picked up a pit viper and died moments later in what appeared to be intense pain, the entire neighborhood understood the world just a little bit better. “Don’t pick up the pit vipers,” they’d laugh, “or you’ll end up like Richard over there.” If they had pencils or an alphabet, one of them would have written a book detailing the demise of Dick the Bold. There is no mistake that hasn’t already been made – and written about.

We humans have evolved as the dominant species because we can learn from each other. That, and we have opposable thumbs. Unlike Timothy Treadwell, who had thumbs but no common sense, most of us don’t have to be mauled to know that a bear is not a toy.

Obvious, I know. But why then did Timothy become breakfast? Why do we all keep making the same mistakes?

In Timothy’s case, it’s because his ignorance was buoyed by success. The first time he snuggled up to a bear and survived, he confused blind luck with knowledge. For the rest of us, we forget that there isn’t anything new under the sun. We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of others.

Young people are especially prone to avoidable mistakes, but by no means do they have a monopoly. It’s worth the time it takes to do some research – whether you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, or starting an employee-training program. Don’t look at just the benefits; learn the risks, too, and make a decision based on facts and experience – even if it’s someone else’s experience.

Bookstores are overflowing with 2,000 years of wisdom. Whatever you can think of to do, someone else has already tried it. Read their story and save yourself some time, grief – and possibly, your life..