We tend to make better decisions if we separate the decision from the outcome.
Imagine you’re walking to school. You’re confronted by an aggressive dog, so you move to the other side of the street. A car speeds past you and splashes muddy water all over your clothing.
Did you make a bad decision moving to the other side of the street? No. The decision and the outcome are two separate entities. You acted based on the best available information and options at the time. The fact that things later went awry doesn’t change the quality of the past decision.
This works the other way, too. Imagine you’d instead decided to approach the dog and provoke it, causing it to run away. A few more steps down the sidewalk, you find $100 you wouldn’t have found if you’d crossed the street.
Did you make a good decision? Actually, no. You made a terrible decision based on the information and options. You just got lucky that things turned out well.
This happens all the time in all areas of your life. My wedding rehearsal dinner took place at a wonderful restaurant that had no air conditioning during one of the hottest summer days in Seattle’s recorded history. Did we make a bad decision booking that place months earlier? No. It was a great decision based on what we knew at the time, which did not include an accurate weather forecast months in the future.
For many families, the intense focus on admissions-related outcomes causes them to conflate those outcomes with the decisions that led them. But losing an election does not mean you made a bad decision to run. The fact that you didn’t enjoy performing in the school play doesn’t mean you made a bad decision to audition.
And while we’re at it, another student’s acceptance to your dream school does not necessarily mean they made a good decision with their choice of essay topic, or that you should follow suit. They might have been admitted in spite of that topic (only the admissions readers who were in the room know why that student was admitted). Don’t assume the decision created the outcome.
Decisions are like bets. Making a smart one increases the likelihood of a good outcome. But it almost never guarantees it.
So stack the deck in your favor. Do the work, be informed, and make your decision based on what’s in front of you at the time.
But if the outcome isn’t what you’d hoped for, don’t punish yourself or the decision. It might just mean that your smart bet met bad luck.
For more on this, poker champion and business consultant Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts is an excellent read.