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Everything I know is wrong: how keeping track of life’s surprises helped me make better decisions

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Rethink your assumptions, make better decisions and change how you see the world by keeping a ‘surprising outcomes journal.’

I believe the world works in a certain way. I believe my best friends will never betray me, if I speak up on a topic in which I am not an expert, people will think I’m stupid, being an entrepreneur will make me feel fulfilled, and moving back to my hometown would make me a loser… But, I also know enough to say that I am probably incorrect about many of the things I believe. 

Everything I know is wrong

Truth is, like all humans, I make decisions and hold beliefs that are illogical, non-factual and simply counterproductive. We continually struggle to differentiate between assumptions based on fact and those based on opinion. These hidden or subconscious biases, presumptions and prejudices can undermine our ability act logically. By becoming more aware of them, we can better avoid making bad choices and sticking with bad choices once we have made them- we stick with startups that are clearly doomed for failure, continue to get into relationships with people who will make us unhappy, and hold back from taking opportunities because we believe we are inadequate.

We get cues every day that we might be wrong, moments where we feel surprised and say to ourselves, “Well I didn’t expect that!” It’s just these moments we need to pay attention to. These moments tell us our expectations and beliefs about the world just might be wrong. Sometimes it’s something small (a person I thought wouldn’t think highly of me actually does- perhaps I am to quick to judge people?). Other times it’s something big  (I realize taking on too many projects at once leaves me unmotivated and unfocused- perhaps being overly opportunistic prevents me from focusing on excelling at the things I really care about?).

Recognizing the importance of these moments, big and small, helps us defog the lens we view our world and ourselves through. 

To record and analyze these moments, I began keeping a “Surprising Outcomes” journal about a year ago. The Surprising Outcomes journal is a tool to help identify incorrect assumptions or beliefs. 

How to keep a ‘surprising outcomes journal’

Here’s how it works: when something happens that surprises you, make a record of it in your journal. Reflect on what you expected and what made you feel surprised. Over time, these entries will allow you to identify incorrect assumptions, uncover our beliefs, and change your behavior. 

Here is an excerpt from one of my own journal entries where I reassessed my assumptions about how I ought to behave at workplace after I noticed a change in my behavior led to a surprising outcome: 

  • What I did I don’t usually do: I spoke up, was assertive and expressed my contradictory opinions to upper management in meetings.
  • What I expected:  My colleagues would shut me down, question my abilities, think my opinion was stupid and be angry I was contradicting them. 
  • What actually happened: Speaking up helped me gain the respect and trust of management. I now have a reputation for intelligent decisions and I am being trusted to be part of higher level meetings. I am being treated with more respect and have more power. 
  • What I learned: People respond positively when I am assertive and express my opinion. Holding a dissenting opinion is fine, as long as it is well-founded and expressed politely, non-threateningly and respectfully. My assumption that my coworkers will shoot my ideas down is invalidated. I need to work on being more confident and being less concerned about people’s opinions.

Why is it so hard to change your mind?

Why is this exercise so important? Because, as it turns out, it’s hard to change our minds once they are made up. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), the authors share a study on the power of confirmation bias, and what we do when faced with an opposing point of view. In the study, researchers selected people who either favored or opposed capital punishment and asked them to read scholarly, well-documented articles contrary to their viewpoint on whether the death penalty deters violent crimes. 

What did the researchers discover?

“ Not only did each side discredit the other’s arguments; each side became even more committed to its own.”

That feeling of tension we get between two inconsistent cognitions (“I am intelligent and hardworking. I do well at everything I try.”) and (“My startup is failing, we aren’t able to get customers”) is cognitive dissonance. When we experience cognitive dissonance, we tend to distort information or go into denial to escape reality. 

The authors share a result from study done by neuroscientists:

“Neuroscientists have recently shown that these biases in thinking are built into the very way the brain processes information — all brains, regardless of their owners’ political affiliation.”

For example a study of people who were monitored by magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) found that:

“The reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored. These mechanisms provide a neurological basis for the observation that once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them.

This kind of self justification is part of human nature. That’s why we need to be mindful if we hope to overcome our biases. This means understanding how our minds work, assessing our mistakes, being open to new information and recognizing when things aren’t as we think. 

Defogging the lens

It can be uncomfortable to change our minds (I realize I do so many things that don’t actually make sense!). But, by taking account of life’s surprises, we can take a more clear eyed approach to the way we live. We can take a moment to reflect rather than act on feelings alone.

Recognizing when we are in an uncomfortable state of dissonance helps us make more intelligent, conscious decisions. Instead of allowing our automatic self-protective mechanisms to guide our actions, we can make decisions that lead to better outcomes. The discomfort is worth it.

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Soheila Yalpani View All

Soheila is the founder of Thinkstr.co and the Principal of Oppfinn Consulting. As a project manager and consultant, her interests lie at the intersection of innovation and societal impact. On Thinkstr.co, she writes about business, technology, travel and smart cities.

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