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Soulful Sundays: Resulting

“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.” - The Old Man and the Sea

To a Seahawk's fan the final play of Super Bowl XLIX was likely seen as an utter tragedy. Down by four points with the ball on the Patriots' first yard line, it was second down and 26 seconds remained in the game. Seattle's coach, who only had one timeout left, called a passing play. The result was an interception by New England and the end of the game.

Coach Carroll was criticized for his decision despite it being the superior choice. An incomplete pass would have stopped the play clock, thus saving the final timeout and making two additional plays more likely. Furthermore, the Seahawks had scored their previous two touchdowns by passing and the chance of interception was less than two percent. Still, because of the bad luck and resulting loss, the call will forever be scoffed at and Carroll blamed for the defeat.

The "resulting fallacy " occurs when we judge a decision based on the outcome that it produces rather than the inherent quality of the decision itself. This often leads people to believe they are making great choices when things are going their way, yet overemphasize bad luck when things are going poorly. The fallacy being, that luck is at play in both situations. For example, if Carroll's decision has resulted in the Seahawk's triumph, then he would have been exalted instead.

To overcome both the overconfidence created by good fortune and loss of agency created by bad, we must focus on the process of decision making itself. But what shapes how we make decisions anyway? The answer is a controversial one--we don't fully know.

The way that we initiate action (a.k.a. decide) is a well preserved process, evolutionarily speaking. Our ancestors relied on accurate and quick decisions concerning food, environment, and reproduction in order to survive and proliferate. As a result the architecture of the decision pathway relies largely on emotions--gut feelings. We act in certain ways more because they feel right and less because the statistics support us. Lucky for us, though, our feelings are partially trainable.

To train ourselves to make better decisions we have to become more aware of why we behave a certain way in the first place. This is a deep rabbit hole, but the easiest way to get at our underlying motivations is to ask 'why?' at least five times. Any more than that and the experiment starts to spiral out of control. By the fifth 'why?' we have gotten deep enough to start to change the structure of the motivation a little bit.

For example, you ask yourself why you work. Some might say to make money. Why? Because money leads to a higher quality of life. Why? Because you can afford to buy the things that your family needs. Why? Because no one else is going to. Why? Because we need to be independent. At the end we see the root motivation as the need for autonomy.

Contrast that with the following: why do you work? To help others. Why? Because helping others gives one a sense of purpose. Why? Because we are part of a relationship. Why? Because all people need a community. Why? Because without it we would die. At the end we see a root motivation for belonging.

Neither of these scenarios is more correct than the other. They represent two completely different motivations for working. Paradoxically, multiple motivations can (and do) exist in the same person simultaneously.

In the game of football the variables involved are much simpler than in the arena of life. Major life decisions rarely have discreet, statistically convincing outcomes. The best decisions are the ones that satisfy the highest number of root motivations. And the closer those root motivations are to something resembling virtue, the more sustainable they become.

It is far more rewarding to play the best game possible and get beaten than to play poorly and win. It is far more virtuous to work every day and slowly save for the future than it is to hit the lottery and squander the fortune out o0f lack of respect for the process. When making decisions we must keep in mind our intention for acting and not be distracted by the outcome that results. In this way, when a great opportunity comes knocking we will treat it with the same care as every other guest, and that will make all of the difference.

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