Understanding outcomes

My teenage daughter lost her phone last week. It’s not hard to imagine how devastating that was for her. So many of us rely on our phones for everything from real-time payments to maintaining our online social identities. For a teenager the potential data loss was one part; the loss of access was another, more important part. (Honestly, she also thought my wife and I would be mad at her, as well, so add that to the emotional stew).

On the scale of potential loss, a phone is a pretty minor thing. By contrast, Thomas Edison was dealt a substantial blow when, in 1914, his lab complex burned to the ground. Ryan Holiday tells the story really well in his book “The Obstacle is the Way”. By comparison to my teenage daughter, and most of us, I suspect, Edison accepted the loss of the buildings with both curiosity and stoicism. His main concern was that there be no loss of life, despite the incalculable loss of many patents and inventions. Rather than mourn the buildings and their contents he told his son to gather his friends to witness the spectacle of flames shooting 100 feet into the air.

In “Mindset”, Carole Dweck writes about a lawyer who spent seven years fighting a case against the biggest bank in his state on behalf of customers of the bank. He lost. His response to being questioned about how he felt was centred on the validity of the effort, not the loss. While I’m sure his clients would have liked to see a positive court case result, the outcomes were broader for the lawyer.

Outcomes aren’t necessarily binary things. We won, or we lost; we got to the top of the mountain, or we turned back. These seem like binary statements. If we view the consequences of our decisions as purely binary, then we’re in danger of missing important opportunities in our lives. Foremost amongst those is the chance to learn from the journey we take to get to the goal.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the goal might be different from the outcomes. And the outcome might not be “good” or “bad”, or even a binary position.

Failing during a worthwhile endeavour isn’t necessarily an unwelcome outcome. The goal isn’t to fail, clearly – it’s to get to the finish line. But the activity, and the lessons learned from the activity and the failure, can be transformational. Unfortunately, that is something we often disregard (particularly if we’re in a fixed mindset).

I’m not saying we should set failure as a goal – particularly systemic failure. That said, I do think micro-failures are helpful to us, especially in new disciplines. “I tried this, it didn’t work, I’ll try differently next time.” The failure is an outcome, not a definition of who we are.

In Edison’s case, the loss of the factory was not the goal, but the result was a massive increase in profit and a raft of new inventions. “We got rid of a load of rubbish”, was one of his comments to his son.

In my daughter’s case, the outcome was a new number and a more powerful phone. Not her goal when she set out that day, but I’ve not heard her complain about it since. She has also had a timely reminder of the need to maintain backups for all of her data, something that all of us can bear in mind.

Economists may tell you that all that matters is the outcome. Let’s make sure that we understand that the outcome is not necessarily the goal and that a failure or loss can have beneficial results. Being kinder to ourselves when we fail can bring new learning. In addition, succeeding doesn’t necessarily mean achieving our goals. And with that, back to the learning journey!

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