There are four types of unintended consequences: positive, negative, perverse, and unforeseen
Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds – George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans, 1819~1880)
Here it is already the third week of the New Year. What kind of year will unfurl for you? Will it be prosperous, fill of opportunity? Are you headed for success or spinning out of control, moments away from a crash landing? What’s in store for you? What can you expect to happen in the future? I’m not a psychic, but I know what the future will bring you and me.
What will it bring? It will bring the CONSEQUENCES of our actions. Yes, it is not destiny, fate, good or ill luck that lurks around the corner, but the consequences of all we do. Oh, I may be able to avoid my responsibilities, but there is no place I can hide from the consequences of avoiding them. Here’s how Stephen Covey put it, “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.”
Another bright man and a reader of this newsletter, Peter Collett, clearly sums up the point I’m trying to make, “Will this decade be the terrible tens, the terrific tens, the teens, the tweens or what? It is up to each of us how this decade will be remembered – why do we call ourselves ‘victims’ of the history we, ourselves, create? It’s our year – no one else’s – so it’s up to us to make it a good one!”
And the way to make it a good one is to be ever mindful of the consequences of everything we do. “A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling,” writes Norman Cousins (1915~1990), “Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences.”
It takes time for the results of our actions to arrive. And because of the time gap between action and consequence, we are apt to become complacent or forget that what we do now determines what the future will bring. We can also overlook the significance of small actions. Don’t! For just as a single spark can lead to a raging forest fire, the smallest act can have devastating consequences. Bruce Barton (1886~1967) agrees, for he said, “Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things … I am tempted to think there are no little things.”
I don’t want to appear too gloomy, so let me quickly add that terrible consequences are not terrible if we learn from them. Another point to consider is we can have nothing other than what we give away. For example, if everywhere I go I am abusive, angry, and uncooperative, that’s how others will treat me. But if I am supportive and helpful, the world will rush to my side, treating me the same way. So, a simple way of thinking about consequences is we get back what we give to others.
Consequences, however, can get complicated. For even when we carefully weigh our options and take the best possible action, there will probably be unintended consequences. There are four types of unintended consequences: positive, negative, perverse, and unforeseen. Let’s look at some examples.
1. POSITIVE. Tom works hard, saves money, and goes to college to better himself. At college he studies hard and after graduation he lands a good job. His success is a natural consequence of his actions. But because of his decision to go to college, something else happened. He met Betty in one of his classes. They fell in love, got married, and are very happy. This was a positive unintended consequence.
Going to college was Tom’s plan, but meeting his future wife was life’s plan for Tom. Imagine if Tom had told himself that he was in college only to study. Had he focused exclusively on his studies, he might have missed the opportunity of meeting the love of his life. The moral is, although we want to plan our lives, we should be flexible enough to allow life to do some of the planning for us.
2. NEGATIVE. Some Canadian volunteers work in Africa, building irrigation systems to provide water for agriculture. Their efforts have a positive impact on the community, but there is also a negative unintended consequence. You see, the irrigation system also provides a home for parasites that can spread diseases, such as schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia, bilharziosis or snail fever). So, to avoid creating catastrophes with good intentions, we must ask ourselves what the negative unintended consequences of our plans may be. This will allow us to take corrective action to reduce or stop the damage.
3. PERVERSE. A perverse unintended consequence brings about the opposite of what is intended. For example, rents in the city are too expensive for low income people. They cannot find affordable housing. Fearful that the situation will worsen, the city introduces rent-control legislation, making it against the law to raise the rents of apartments. But the new law discourages developers from making new apartment buildings, and the perverse unintended consequence is that there are now fewer, not more, vacancies.
For another example, “In Hanoi, under French colonial rule, a program paying people a bounty for each rat pelt handed in was intended to exterminate rats. Instead, it led to the farming of rats.” (Michael G. Vann, “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History,” French Colonial History Society, May, 2003) So, having good intentions is not enough. We have to carefully think through our plans, making sure that we will not get the opposite of what we want.
4. UNFORESEEN. Despite how careful we are, there will always be some results that we could not have predicted. And these unexpected consequences can be positive, negative, or neutral. Here is an example of a positive or neutral consequence. Mary, her husband, and young daughter are watching a TV movie (the intention is to spend family time together). Her daughter is so impressed by the role of a nurse in the movie that she decides to become one. Something similar happened to my wife. As a child, she was impressed by the nurses who looked after her sickly brother, and as a result she became an RN.
The high divorce rate in North America suggests that too many people are rushing into marriage in search of happiness while failing to take enough time to get to know their partner. The perverse unintended consequence of their union is bickering, anger, and resentment, until their marriage collapses, leaving both scarred by the trauma of divorce. They had failed to realize happiness ought to be the consequence, not the motive of our actions. The pain of divorce is even worse if there are children involved. Can you see how important it is to consider all the possible consequences of our actions?
There may be no right or wrong ways of doing things, but all ways have their consequences. Dean William R. Inge (1860~1954) expressed a similar thought when he said, “There are no rewards or punishments – only consequences.” So, from this moment on, what are we going to be thinking about? Not our plans, dreams, or goals, but of their consequences!
For more on destiny versus consequences: http://www.personal-development.com/chuck/destiny.htm