Every Outcome is the Result of Two Things

Once upon a time, I hired an electrician (let’s call him Billy) to do some work on my house. Long story short, Billy made a mess of things. Every time I look up and see my wrecked ceiling tile, I’m reminded that hiring Billy was a bad decision.

But it wasn’t. Not really.

Like everyone else, when I experience a bad outcome, I tend to attribute it to bad decision-making. That is, I judge the quality of my decision by the quality of the outcome.

This is an error in thinking.

In truth, almost every outcome is the result of two things: (1) the quality of the decision and (2) chance. Because of chance, it’s possible to make a good decision and get a bad outcome and it’s possible to make a bad decision and get a good outcome.

I hired Billy because he was the highest-rated local electrician I could find. Across two different websites that I’ve used successfully in the past, dozens of customers had given Billy an average of four out of five stars. That was the best data I had available at the time, so the decision to hire him was, in fact, a good one, even though the outcome was bad.

Here’s another example: If I choose to drive home drunk and make it safely, does that mean my decision to drive drunk was a good one? Of course not. It was a bad decision. I made it home safely due to chance.

Now suppose I choose to wait to sober up before I drive home, but I end up getting t-boned by someone who drove through a red light. Does that mean my decision to drive sober was a bad one? Again, of course not. It was a good decision. I got hit due to chance.

I’d rather live in a world where chance plays no role–where every outcome is due solely to the quality of my decisions. But that’s not the world I live in. As Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.”

Assuming that a poor outcome means I’ve exercised poor judgment–without taking the role of chance into account–is, itself, an act of poor judgment.