Bad things happen. We plan and we plan, and sometimes bad things happen anyway. Even when we anticipate difficulties, events might unfold in unanticipated ways, or we might be unable to execute the plans we had because of other unanticipated events.
Yet, when bad things happen, we can feel like failures. We might believe there was something more we could have done. We lose confidence. Our performance degrades. If this cycle continues, it can affect our personal lives — even our health.
Why we do this is a bit mysterious. In calmer moments, we do know that we can't control everything, but maybe we want to feel like we're in control of more than we actually are. It's a difficult habit to break. To make some progress, though, to come to peace despite failures, we can contemplate exactly what in Life truly is beyond our control.
- Hindsight is often a distorted view
- Sometimes there really is something more we could have done. Usually there isn't, but even when there is, given what we knew at the time, it's possible — even likely — that we made appropriate choices, despite the clear indications otherwise when viewed with hindsight. It's possible to have made correct choices given the information we had at the time, and then later to realize that if we knew then what we know now, we would have made different choices. That's OK.
- We forget about the limits of possibility
- Even when hindsight reveals a better alternative, it might not have been possible at the time. Choosing it might have resulted in disciplinary action, reassignment, or termination. Was it a real choice? Even if we had advocated it, would it have been approved? Would people have supported it? Would resources have been available? Hindsight might reveal a better choice, but the then-current reality might have precluded it.
- Promises are interconnected
- In modern organizations, Even when hindsight reveals
a better alternative, it
might not have been
possible at the timeour plans and decisions depend on commitments from others — assurances of support, resources, reliable information, and more. They promise, and we accept their promises. Sometimes, people break their promises, usually involuntarily. They give their word based on promises others make to them. Viewed this way, modern organizations are little more than webs of promises, and when some promises are broken, promise-breaking travels through that web like grassfire. There isn't much anyone could have done about it. When your plans fail because of one of these global promise collapses, is there anything different you could have done? Probably not.
Whether due to limited information, limited capabilities, or our limited ability to keep our promises, we can control only some of what happens around us. It's a difficult reality to accept. Even though we might prefer the fiction of failure to the reality of our limitations, reality is always a better choice. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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