Rafael is a brilliant ER Doctor. He is smart, witty and very good at saving people's lives. "If you are alive when you arrive at the ER there is a 90+ percent chance that you will survive," he always says. Rafael pointed out to me the other side of the law of unintended consequences or what he called "positive unintended consequences."
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The Other Side of Unintended Consequences
Steve Jobs's famous story of taking up a calligraphy class when he dropped out of college--which consequently led to the development of fonts in the early days of the computing revolution--is a great example for the other side of unintended consequences.
Typically, the Law of Unintended Consequences is mentioned in relation to all the unintended bad things that happen as a result of an action taken.
Here is case in point. The success of the Prohibition Movement in outlawing the consumption of alcohol led to the unintended consequences of dramatic upsurge of crime and the rise of Al Capone. A more recent example is banishing smoking from public spaces which forced smokers to congregate outside public buildings. The unintended consequence being that to make your way to the entrance of many public buildings you now have to make your way through clouds of smoke.
What is an example of the other side of unintended consequences?
Here is how Rafael puts it. The Vietnam War was terrible. We lost many lives. But very few people know that many thousands of people are saved each year because of what we learned in Vietnam. Emergency medicine was transformed as a result of the harsh learning laboratory of Vietnam. It was transformed again, specifically in the handling of mass casualty events, as a result of new methods developed in Israel during a series of bus explosions. Thousands of people alive today, explains Rafael, owe their lives to what we've learned through these painful and challenging events.
Another example of positive unintended consequences of Vietnam was the passage of ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Thousands of wounded veterans were a catalytic ingredient for a dramatic cultural change that institutionalized similar protections against discrimination as those established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Public transportation and accommodation as well as employment rules were transformed.
What are your positive and surprising unintended consequences?
My parents separated when I was four. I did not understand why all my friends had both parents living together and mine lived in different places. I lived with my father in the Kibbutz and my mother lived in Tel Aviv. Back then this was not the norm but the exception. Shortly after, before the age of six, I decided that my family being different was not a predicament; it was an advantage.
My father managed the factory at the Kibbutz and my mother managed the Israeli Chamber Orchestra. No one told me I could choose to reframe my experience and situation--people didn't talk like this back then. I intuitively knew and decided that all this was setting me up to succeed.
I was in a great position to take the best of and learn from both worlds. My father's work exposed me to the art of influencing and persuasion and how to manage a complex system like a Kibbutz. My mother's experience exposed me to the world of music and to Isaac Stern, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and other big names in the world of artistic achievement, and through them to the psychology of fame.
I was observant and could see at a very early age the stupidity and craziness of unmanaged egos and what drove people into difficult circumstances. Two observations bewildered me at the age of seven: most adults treated seven-year-olds like unintelligent beings, and a great majority of people seemed to feel awkward and insecure in most situations. This was confusing and at times perplexing for me.
The positive and surprising unintended consequence of my parents' divorce was that it made me highly observant and versatile. I realized that we can each chart our own life by the choices we make about the people we spend time with. These gifts and the self-awareness they brought propelled me to experience and do what I could never have imagined was possible.
What are your positive and surprising unintended consequences? What challenges and setbacks have you grappled with that can help you reinvent how you do things? What new positive outcomes can you create?
In the story of coming from what some would consider a disadvantage--a family separated by divorce--there is the observation that often difficult circumstances can teach us how to be stronger and more resilient, and what Taleb calls antifragile. In the most negative of situations, resilience is often the unexpected end product. Resilience doesn't mean staying the same or bouncing back. Resilience is bouncing forward to configure a new equilibrium. You build resilience by applying learning. And emergent and resilient learning is the propelling force of innovation. You thrive in the face of the unknown and the uncertain through resilience and the reimagining of who you are becoming.
Now it's your turn. Turn the Key. Help your teams and communities create new positive and surprising futures.
© Aviv Shahar