The Outcome Fallacy

If someone wrote you a check for $1 million today, what would you do with it?

New car? New home? Pay-off debt? Maybe a vacation?

Damn, this would be exciting. And it would definitely relieve some pressure. No denying that. Shiny objects are fun. And pressure sucks.

Me? Not sure. A few years ago, I'd have said, new Benz maybe. Definitely goodbye mortgage. Forget a vacation—a new vacation pad in Miami sounds more my appetite. I mean, it does sound amazing.

Okay, so after that, what would you do the next day?

I’ve heard some people say, “Easy, I’d quit my job” or “Tell my boss to go screw himself.” Surely these all might be good options. And fun ones, too.

But, for a moment, even if it’s just right now, think about this question a little deeper.

Because even after you’ve fulfilled all your dreams and bought all your new stuff, this question remains…

What would you do tomorrow?

Considering this question has led me down a (two-year-and-counting) rabbit hole of discovery to understand a concept I call The Outcome Fallacy: a societal belief that outcomes are more important than processes, or that a million-dollar check would somehow be the end of our troubles. If only we can achieve this one outcome, then everything else will better. If you’ve ever played The Game of Life, it’s quite possible you’ve experienced The Outcome Fallacy quite vividly. Damn that pesky little board game.

Logically, we know The Outcome Fallacy is just that—a fallacy. We spend 99% of our time living the process, not the outcome. No matter what we do, no outcome in the world could replace the fact that we have to go back to the process tomorrow. Different process, same process, doesn’t matter, there’s always a process. Creatives understand this pattern quite literally.

Here’s Elizabeth Gilbert talking about what happens after a brilliant dancer delivers a riveting performance:

"The tricky bit comes the next morning for the dancer himself when he wakes up and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11am and he's no longer a glimpse of God. He's just an aging mortal with really bad knees. And maybe he's never going to ascend to that height again and maybe nobody will ever chant his name again as he spins. And what is he then to do with the rest of his life?"

Sure, you will achieve specific outcomes from time to time—standing ovations, dollars, cars, homes, whatever. But, with each one comes a new reality. Another set of challenges that need to be addressed. Making a new process or processes inevitable.

In The Salesperson Paradox, I encourage readers to focus less on outcomes and more on processes:

“We live in a world obsessed with outcomes. Everyone wants to own the Ferrari, have millions of dollars, or be the next Mark Zuckerberg. These are all outcomes. The problem is that nobody wants to take the time to understand who you must become to achieve those outcomes. In fact, most don’t know the first thing about who they need to become.”

Since, I realized I was only scratching the surface, I started asking myself, Why is it that we can’t, don’t, or won’t value the process above the outcome? It occurred to me the world is applying counterforce. There are so many things that condition us to believe in The Outcome Fallacy.

Our education system focuses on grades rather than learning.

Our athletic coaches champion winning over improving.

Our bosses scream, “We need more sales!” When they should be saying, “What can we do differently now that we know this?”

Our friends remind us, “Live for today. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed.” Sure, that’s true one day, but with life expectancy at approximately 79 years, it’s also not true approximately 28,834 days.

Our social media platforms leverage innate human behavior and condition us to believe that what you see is all there is. Daniel Kahneman calls this phenomenon WYSIATI, an availability bias that skews our perception. Yes, we use anecdotal evidence to form bold opinions and make confident decisions.

Oh and, don’t forget that crappy news feed that runs shock headlines of isolated incidents that teach us that progress just isn’t good enough.

In Steven Pinker’s new book, he advocates through 75 charts, 450 pages, and 1278 supporting notes that the we are, in fact, making progress in almost every facet imaginable—health, knowledge, wealth, inequality, peace, safety, and yes, even the environment. Sure, more progress would be fantastic. But that process, it will never end.

Here’s four ways to win through progress instead of outcomes:

1. Measure your wins in years, not moments.

For a long time, I didn’t like Sebastian Maniscalco. I’m not entirely sure why. I even accused him of going for cheap laughs, until one day I found out the grueling process behind how he established his career. Years spent building a fanbase on the road playing to nobody. Sorry, Sebastian. I now admire you.

2. Welcome new problems.

I use to fall victim to Grass is Always Greener Syndrome, until I learned new grass just means new problems. I learned from experience that fixing one thing does not fix another thing. You have to just keep fixing. Now I believe in the compound effect, consistency over time. I trust incremental progress. Even when it doesn’t feel like progress.

3. Kick your ego to the curb.

Ego can hold you down or raise you up. A true epitome of the double-edged sword maxim. Untamed, it can be your worst nightmare. Harnessed, it can be your greatest ally. Perhaps nobody has documented this better than Ryan Holiday in Ego is the Enemy, where he shows you the true power of your ego. We must gain control of our ego.

4. Assess outcomes objectively.

Whether it’s your outcome or somebody else’s, it’s quite likely you could be giving it more credit or blame than it deserves. In Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke points out whether it’s a good or bad outcome, learning to bucket outcomes as either “more skill” or “more luck” is critical to becoming better decision makers. There’s a vast difference between decision quality and outcome quality. The key is learning from outcomes. Growing from outcomes. All in an effort to help improve your process.

Adopting these mindset shifts won’t be easy. But if you do, they will help you fight back against The Outcome Fallacy. You’ll make better decisions. Become more appreciative. Be more open-minded. And potentially much happier.

Or you can just listen to me. Process is life. Process is what matters.

That $1 million won’t cure everything. I promise.