Your life experience is a sum of a million tiny decisions. Often it takes a long time for the impact of many decisions to show themselves.
In my life, it’s almost always true that the second and third-order consequences are the most powerful, for good and for not. This has been true for relationships, opportunities, what Charles Duhigg calls keystone habits, for most things.
My health, my friends, everything in my life is the consequence of consequences. We stumble into things seemingly by accident and they seem random, but they aren’t.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the narrator says “You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”
This is particularly easy to see for good outcomes. My professional experiences since 2009 are the direct result of an approach to chasing “interesting over sensible,” a life principle I adopted only after looking back at where I’d been and noticing a pattern then seeking to mimic that pattern going forward.
Second and third order consequences are worth examining deeply because they often appear to be the result of randomness when, in fact, they aren’t. The more you study how good things came as the result of other things, sometimes as a result of bad things, the more you will understand the principles you are subconsciously living by. The more you understand your subconscious drivers, the more you can aim your future decisions towards the good and away from the bad.
Mapping these things is hard but it is particularly hard to proactively map the bad things, the things we’d rather not think about again.
The problem is, when bad things happen, we map them anyway. Humans need stories to explain randomness, it’s our nature. And if we can make sense of a situation with our own narrative, we’ll often choose that path over one where we may be confronted with complicated data that cloud our view.
We replay events, we get stuck in our head, we try to find ways to fix problems, we get depressed.
Matters of the heart are particularly complicated. Most of us prefer to avoid confronting emotional things directly and instead retreat to our own safe place to reflect or heal or be angry. The last thing we want to do is confront the other person and feel pressured to articulate a thing we are feeling that we can’t even articulate to ourselves.
Often we reemerge and tackle it, even if it’s bumpy. Sometimes we don’t. It’s easier not to.
What we often don’t realize is that at work, in life, in relationships it’s always true that the other side(s) is going through the same process. Like you, they conjure narratives to explain what is otherwise unexplainable. Both sides replay events endlessly. Both sides look for an event or events that explain the direct and second-order consequences of whatever is happening between them. And most of the time, these narratives are wrong.
As I’ve grown I’ve become much more comfortable with vulnerability and what some might technically be called confrontation. My close friends know, and sometimes loathe, that I am very comfortable running head first into a difficult conversation, even if it’s bumpy and poorly timed. It’s often both.
I try to be this way because I’ve learned:
1. If you are feeling discomfort or weirdness in a relationship, professional or personal, you can be 99% certain the other sides are feeling it to.
2. The spinning stories in your head attempting to explain this feeling are also spinning in their head.
3. You can’t be certain the other sides are comfortable with proactively confronting those feelings.
4. This discomfort will always lead to an “event” that changes the course of the relationship.
The decision to confront or not confront isn’t really a decision because regardless of what you do, it will lead to an event. That event could be a confrontation or it could be a fork in the road at a point of no return like getting fired or a breakup.
If you don’t confront these feelings, if you retreat, you leave others wondering how things came to this place? For a person who focuses on second and third order consequences, this process can be grueling. Things fester. Narratives form. Emotions overflow.
It feels risky to be the one to initiate confrontations about hard, especially emotional matters. And we’re often blinded by our ego’s desire to be powerful and to be right. We don’t want to be the one that admits something is wrong. We don’t want to cede that power. We rationalize doing nothing and letting the situation solve itself or simply run away.
The flaw in that approach is that it cedes control of your life to randomness. This approach is betting, with unknown odds, that the others will handle the situation in a productive way.
Over time I’ve learned that even if I don’t know what is wrong, the most powerful words I can are “Hey, maybe it’s just me but something feels off between us. Am I right? Can you help me understand what’s up between us?”
That statement has saved more relationships than I can count…in my work, my friendships, my heart.
I’m reminded of this way of living every time I don’t do it. When I let discomfort fester to the point that someone else decides how to handle it and I’m left to deal with the consequences without any control.
If I could offer one piece of advice to others it would be to always confront, always tackle the hard things, always say something, even if you don’t know what to say. Be the bumbling fool. Be the one who articulates that which you cannot articulate. Be the one who stops an out of control cycle from the risk of crashing.
Not only does this approach help you remove at least some randomness from your life, but it helps you be a more empathetic human, sparing others from many painful cycles of creating narratives to explain things that are, in fact, explainable.