The Law of Unintended Consequences

by | Dec 18, 2020 | Life Lessons & Leadership | 0 comments


The Law of Unintended Consequences


Ever heard of it?

In simple terms, a single change in a complex system will have a ripple effect, or consequences, downstream.

The changes can be both positive or negative and the ones that we didn’t anticipate are considered “unintended consequences.”

Here’s a very simple example from yesterday.

I noticed and wrote about my feet, my shoes, my back and my need to change directions.

So, I did.

For our walk yesterday I changed into my 2 year old work boots that are broken in and feel great (I know the rule on wearing brand new shoes on long walks, to play golf, etc).

The tread on them was in great shape. They felt fantastic when I put them on. And, I even mentioned about a mile in to the walk how I could feel how it was forcing my feet to put more pressure on the inside of my feet.

Total score!

4 miles in I mentioned to Joanna (about the time I took that picture of her), that my feet felt like they were on fire. It was below freezing out and I really had to go to the bathroom (remind me not to drink a large cup of coffee before a 5 mile walk), so I just kept on… but faster.

The last 50 feet or so, the fire started back up. I was quick to get my shoes off only to see that I had two (2) quarter sized fully developed, angry looking blisters. One on the ball of each foot.

So, the ripple effect?

The negatives clearly include the blisters, the added pain, the change in how I walk, the change in my daily routine for the next week or so, the burden on others around me.

The positives include more computer time, more strength training, a reinforced understanding of blisters, a gain of at least an hour a day from not walking, and more attention to things that don’t require me walking much.

All unintended consequences from one single change.

Did I learn a lesson? Many.

The change was a decision. A conscious thought out decision. I don’t blame myself for not thinking it through – I thought it through, just not thoroughly enough.

And, that reminds me of an old saying that pops in my head every now and then.

“Most bad decisions don’t feel like bad decisions when we make them.”

Read that again and think it through.

Ever had someone say “what were you thinking?” Heck, have you ever asked yourself that? It’s because you’re human.

Our brains are wired to make decisions and we make them based on variables we know.

Can we make better decisions though? That answer is emphatically yes. If you read my “Growth Spiral” post last week, you’ll see in your mind’s eye how every time we circle back around we have new information that helps us navigate.

Well, yesterday, I went around again and feel a little better about my understanding of cause & effect relationships.

And, decision making is a skill. I’ll write about that at some point soon.

Oh, and last thing, the Law of Unintended Consequences is real and can apply in almost any situation. I bet you’re thinking of your own examples right now.

Come to think of it, the guy who probably coined the term got so frustrated with his own life that he stopped making changes for fear of the consequences. He then probably came up with this one, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

And that last quote, by itself, was an unintended consequence of inaction. Oh the circle of life!


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