Unintended consequences

Like most golf courses, the fairways of Augusta National Golf Club, host of the annual Masters Tournament, were mowed in both directions – one stripe (or section) mowed from the teeing ground toward the green, and the adjoining one mowed from the green back toward the tee. That’s obviously efficient – when the ride-on mower gets to one end, it just turns around and mows back the other way. But, so it’s said, some elite golfers complained that there was an advantage or disadvantage depending on whether your ball landed on grass leaning back towards the tee or leaning forward towards the green. There was less resistance to the ball when it dropped on grass tilted toward the green, so it went further. The distance our drives go, they said, shouldn’t depend on which stripe of grass it lands on. The Augusta Club thought about that, and solved the problem. It cut all the grass only in one direction – leaning back towards the tee. That was not at all what those players wanted. But it’s what they got; their complaint had resulted in an unwelcome, unintended consequence.

I’m not sure that story is entirely true, except that Augusta these days does mow its fairways from green back to teeing ground. Not that it actually matters. Scientific tests have shown that neither direction of mowing makes any difference to how far the ball runs.

The point of the story, though, is that words and actions can very easily have unintended consequences.

When I first experienced severe back pain (in my teens and twenties), I was made to lie on a hard board placed on top of my bed’s mattress. On another occasion I lay on the floor beside my bed. Such practices were the wisdom of the time. Except – at least for me – they weren’t at all wise. The pressure of the hard surface made my back much worse. An unintended consequence.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, many commentators explained that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, did not want a NATO-member country right on his border. The invasion was to prevent Ukraine ever being that nation. But that invasion made both Sweden and Finland afraid they might be a future target of Russian aggression. So both these traditionally neutral, unaligned countries applied for NATO membership. If granted, which is likely, that will seriously displease President Putin. Why? Because Finland has an 830 mile (1340 km) border with Russia. The goal he did not want – a NATO country as his immediate neighbour – he looks certain to have. An unintended consequence.

We all attempt things which don’t work out. We don’t pass an exam, our auction bid fails, our house plants die, our penalty kick misses the goal, our application for promotion is rejected, the car we repaired won’t go. And so on. But unintended consequences aren’t about trying and getting nothing. They’re about trying and getting something we didn’t expect.

That happened to me back in the days of four-ring electric cookers when two rings on our cooker stopped working. To do nothing would have left us with a barely usable cooker. Being a man of action I set out to fix what was broken. I took all the rings off, so I could see how they were wired and fitted. That went well, other than it didn’t help me diagnose the problem. Actually, only my dismantling went well. My reassembly went very badly because, when I finished, instead of two broken cooker rings we now had four broken cooker rings, and I couldn’t repair any of them. But this is a bad/good story because my attempts to fix the cooker had two unintended consequences. First, that cooker died completely. Second, we bought a much better cooker.

We all experience unintended consequences. To help you survive them, I can offer one reality check and two encouragements.

Reality check: Life is neither predictable nor controllable

Normally we expect our plans to work out as intended: that the plane we’re booked on will fly; the meal we’ve prepared for guests will taste good; our car will run smoothly. But none of these are guaranteed. The plane might have a faulty engine and never take off (I’ve experienced that); the meat may be left in the oven so long it’s become a burnt offering (I did that); the car won’t go because it was filled with diesel instead of petrol (someone else did that). The old saying that ‘Man proposes but God disposes’ reminds us not everything works out as we expect.

That’s true even when there’s a very carefully crafted business plan and big budget. Most major supermarkets have installed self-checkout facilities. You scan your own goods, then pay, and then go. It avoids a queue at a cashier checkout. Surely that’s good? But a survey of 1000 customers found 67% had problems at self-check kiosks. By the time they got assistance, sometimes more than once, they’d have been quicker going to a cashier. So, customers weren’t delighted. Surely the stores benefited? Maybe not. It’s not clear that businesses have found self-checkout helpful or profitable. The idea of getting the customer to do work previously done by cashiers must have seemed good to management, but:

  • The self-check machines are expensive to buy and install, and they need regular, costly maintenance
  • They often break down, perhaps causing the kind of queues for customers the system was supposed to avoid
  • Customers don’t enjoy scanning their own items so they buy less
  • Staff still have to be employed to assist customers with difficulties
  • More shoplifting happens through self-checkouts than traditional cashier checkouts, and that’s costly.

Installing self-checkout facilities was not a whim, but a carefully worked out plan and investment to boost profits, and to please customers by speeding them through the scan/pay/go experience. But the plan didn’t deliver only benefits. As the bullet points above show, there have been unwelcome and unintended consequences.[1]

The reality is that a sizeable percentage of all our plans don’t work out the way we intend. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t define goals and might as well give up on organisation. We should aim for the best and do our best to achieve it. But be humble – we may not have thought of everything. And be flexible – things may have to change. And be accepting – life rarely involves a straight line from A to B, never mind from A to Z.

Life is neither predictable nor controllable.

Unintended consequences may be more significant than anything we intended

It’s 2003, and a second year Harvard student is creating a website. He calls it Facemash. Many might think it inappropriate, because the site gives his fellow Harvard students the chance to compare two photos and decide which one is ‘hot’ and which is ‘not’. His initial thought is to use school facebook[2] photos – many of which he thought ugly – and put them alongside images of farm animals. In the end, he copied images from several facebooks, and got users to choose the ‘hotter’ person. In its first four hours online Facemash attracted 450 visitors and 22,000 photo-views. It began to take off on other campuses, but the Harvard administration then stepped in and almost expelled the student.

But in January 2004 that student, Mark Zuckerberg, began writing code for (what he initially called) TheFacebook. All he intended was a website that would link everyone on the Harvard campus. He had no thought beyond that. But much more happened. By December 2005 (what was now called) Facebook had six million users.[3] The estimate for 2022 is almost three billion monthly active users worldwide. All that Zuckerberg intended was to link Harvard students together. But the unintended consequence has been an unprecedented take up and growth. People have strong pro and anti feelings about social media, but undeniably Facebook’s story over less than 20 years is truly remarkable.

The chances that our unintended consequences will be like those encountered by Mark Zuckerberg are very close to zero. But we can learn that unanticipated consequences need not be unwelcome consequences. It’s very possible that the unintended consequences in your life will be greater and more wonderful than anything you anticipated.

And that brings me to the final encouragement.

Unintended consequences can be absolutely, excitingly, life-changingly delightful

Here’s my story of exactly that.

My career beginnings were in journalism, leaving school and starting work with The Scotsman (which, never short on modesty, has for decades described itself as Scotland’s national quality newspaper). My first year with the paper was mostly journalism studies at college, then followed by two years full-time as reporter and sub-editor. It was during that time I made my Christian commitment and only months after that I felt I should prepare for Christian ministry. That would mean going to university. I didn’t have the qualifications for entry, so I began studying at evening classes. But severe back pain halted all work and study for about two months. I recovered but realised I’d never get into university with part-time study. I resigned from The Scotsman and enrolled full-time at a further education college. One year later I had the passes needed to enter the University of Edinburgh.

I began alongside thousands more freshers. One of the other new students at the University should have arrived one year earlier, but her intended course of study was being revamped so they’d cancelled the previous year’s admission. Hence she began the same year I did. We met within a few weeks, and three years later Alison and I got married. That was undoubtedly the greatest wisdom either of us ever had. And, well over four decades later, being together keeps getting better.

But very easily it might never have happened.  What if I had done better at high school and gone on immediately to university? What if I’d made my Christian commitment some other time? What if I hadn’t been sidelined by bad health when I first tried to improve my qualifications? What if Alison’s course hadn’t been pushed back a year? But all these factors, all these circumstances, strangely and wonderfully had the unplanned, unforeseen, unintended consequence that Alison and I met.

In my opinion, there’s a lot to be said for unintended consequences.

[1] Much of the information here is from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/07/09/business/self-checkout-retail/index.html

[2] Albums with photos of every student.

[3] Information from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Facebook

More wisdom

It’s hard to say exactly what wisdom is. Just as it’s hard to say what a chameleon is. ‘Surely it’s not difficult with a chameleon. Look, there’s one – that blue old-world kind of lizard. And another one – oh, oddly that one’s yellow. Maybe, then, yellow ones are not chameleons… Wait a minute, there’s something else that looks like a chameleon but it’s green. Too confusing. I’ll stick with the blue one. But hang on a minute. It’s not blue any more – it’s red.’

Of course, as most know, chameleons have a remarkable ability to change colour – using various combinations of pink, blue, red, orange, green, black, brown, light blue, yellow, turquoise, and purple. Sometimes they change to camouflage themselves, sometimes to regulate their temperature, sometimes to look aggressive to predators, and some may even use colour to signal to other chameleons. All that variety makes it hard to say what colour a chameleon is. But, of course, there’s something at the core – the DNA – that is always chameleon.

I think of wisdom like that. Dictionaries can use words like ‘experience’ or ‘knowledge’ about wisdom, but they just describe how wisdom appears, like blue or red is how a chameleon might appear.

When we’re talking about wisdom we have to be content with that. In the last blog I wrote that wisdom is something which is practised, in other words the way wisdom shows itself. We see attitudes and actions we recognise as wise. So, this time, I have listed five characteristics of wise people.

They use knowledge well

My son sent me a concise example of that: ‘Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.’ Hard to argue with that.

Knowledge is usually a wonderful thing to have, but wisdom happens when we do good with what we know.

So, I know my car could reach 100 mph, but I’m foolish if I go that fast. And I know I could simply pick up and cut down a (small) tree with my electric chainsaw, but I’m an idiot if I don’t put on protective gear before using the chainsaw. And, when the children were very young, I knew they’d go anywhere I took them, but I’d have been reckless to run across a busy road hoping they’d follow safely.

Wisdom is not simply about having knowledge, but about doing good with knowledge.

They have strong self-awareness

The Apostle Paul wrote this: ‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…’ (Romans 12:3)

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720 – 1788
Portrait in Public Domain

If only Bonnie Prince Charlie had had such wisdom. In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart[1] crossed from France to Scotland believing he’d get massive support across Britain to restore the Stuart monarchy. He had early success, winning battles and taking troops into England as far south as Derby. But support in England was low, and Charlie withdrew his army back to Scotland. On 16 April, 1746, two armies confronted each other on a rugged moorland at Culloden, near Inverness: the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the British government army under the leadership of the Duke of Cumberland. The day ended with a rout of the Jacobite army, Charles fleeing the battlefield, eventually escaping to the western highlands and islands, and then by ship back to France.

Why such a defeat? As with all battles, there were many factors and still many opinions. But one is that Charles wanted to prove his skills as commander rather than let his generals get the glory. But he took exhausted men into battle after a failed overnight mission, then waited while many were cut down by enemy artillery fire before hand-to-hand fighting had begun. His chosen battleground was boggy and unsuited to the ‘Highland charge’ which in other places had overwhelmed the enemy. The day was decisively lost, with many dead and wounded. Afterwards Jacobites were hunted throughout Scotland and many put to death. Bonnie Prince Charlie was welcomed back in France, but his later life was not good: he had several affairs, fathered illegitimate children, and became an alcoholic. He died in Rome in 1788, aged 67.

Forty two years earlier, at Culloden, he believed he was a better leader than he really was. It was disastrous for him and his supporters. Wise people exercise sober judgment.

They treat others well

One style of management centres on the willingness of a boss to perch himself on the edge of a colleague’s desk and simply talk. Not a business meeting; not a conversation with an agenda. Just a chance to get to know the staff member, who they are as well as what they do. Perhaps ground-level insights about the business will emerge, but the fundamental purpose is just to be interested. That style of leadership can be overdone, of course. An employee desperately trying to finish a project before a deadline won’t appreciate a chat about last Saturday’s football. But valuing people, knowing them, being interested in their views – that’s wisdom.

It’s even good for people’s health. Apparently research shows there’s great value in direct interaction with colleagues because it releases hormones which improve mood, trust and the ability to learn and remember. The same doesn’t happen via video, messages or emails.[2]

It makes sense that the more you know someone the more able you are to work together. My guess is that there would also be fewer fights between neighbours if they were friends rather than just ‘the people who live next door’.

They have good instincts

In the last blog I mentioned King Solomon’s prayer: ‘…give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.’ (1 Kings 3:9) God answered that prayer, and from then until now Solomon has been thought of as one of the wisest people who ever lived.

Two parts of that prayer relate to good instincts. One is to have a discerning heart and the other the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

To discern is to see something clearly, perhaps to have a sure grasp of facts, or perhaps what we call a ‘sixth sense’, an ability to know something without using the five ordinary senses.

To distinguish between right and wrong seems clear. Often it is. But not always. Situations can be ambiguous. Someone’s hurt and I’m driving them to the hospital. If I exceed the speed limit they’ll get help more quickly, but if I exceed the speed limit I might cause an accident, more injuries and possibly deaths. What do I do? Or, another example, a colleague’s language is borderline racist or misogynist. His words aren’t directed at me, but I’m offended and others could be seriously harmed. Do I report him? Do I try and correct him? Either of those will end my relationship with him, but if I do nothing his inappropriate language will continue and do real damage.

In both these examples I could argue the case for either course of action. I hope I’d end up doing whatever my instinct told me was right in the specific circumstances. Like Solomon I’d be praying for discernment and to know what would be right and what would be wrong. Wisdom is having an instinct for hard-to-resolve issues that occur constantly in our lives.

They have more than one speed

No-one should drive like my aunt whose top speed on all roads – all roads – was 25mph. She was dangerous.

But my meaning here isn’t about speed in that sense. Rather, they should be people who look before leaping, and leap after looking. I’ll explain.

There are foolish people who charge through life without taking time to think about what’s ahead. Ivor was like that. He’d have an idea for a new business, borrow money, buy equipment, and rent office space… But what he never did was research the business potential. Were there clients for his services? Were there customers for his products? Again and again he rushed headlong into ‘new opportunities’, but each business failed with serious financial consequences. Ivor had bright ideas, but constantly leapt without looking. (Jesus had words about that kind of folly – the person who began to build but wasn’t able to finish – see Luke 14:28-30.) Wise people look before they leap.

But I also said wise people leap after looking. Of course that statement depends on what you learn from looking. If you stand on the bank of a raging river, look carefully at how far it is to the other side, and realise it’s twice as far as an Olympic long-jumper could cover, then you’re an idiot to attempt even your best leap. You’ll be swept away.

Of course you can’t always leap. But it’s foolish to never leap.

When I left school I went straight into journalism with The Scotsman, which was considered the premier newspaper in Scotland. I was a good reporter, and after two or three years was trusted with being the only journalist on duty on a late shift or on Saturdays. The pay was good. The work was varied and interesting. I saw a great career path ahead. And then I left. I gave it all up. I sensed another direction would be right for my life, so spent many years studying, became a church minister and later headed up major Christian organisations. Like now, it was hard to get into journalism, especially on a national paper, and some of my colleagues in the newspaper office must have thought me mad to leave. Perhaps family and friends did too. But I knew what I was doing. I’d ‘looked’ and now it was time to ‘leap’. It was the right thing – the wise thing – to do.

I’ll finish here for this blog piece. There’s more to say about wisdom, and I’ll try to do that next time.

For now I’ll close with more wise words from the Bible:

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
    those who gain understanding,
 for she is more profitable than silver
    and yields better returns than gold.
 She is more precious than rubies;
    nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3:13-15)

[1] Bonnie Prince Charlie’s full name was: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart. Aren’t you glad you’ve never had to write anything like that on an official form?

[2] https://macaulay.cuny.edu/career-blog/the-importance-of-talking-to-your-coworkers/