Friday, June 24, 2016

Dealing With Reality - II: Intent vs. Outcome

If you know the circumstances surrounding the run-out in this picture, imagine for a moment, what would have happened if Dhoni had failed to outrun – and therefore failed to run out – the batsman. 

What if his idea of running with the ball instead of throwing the ball, had backfired? What if Pandya had been hit for 2 fours in that fateful last over? What if those flighted deliveries to which the Bangladeshis fell had instead gone over the rope?

How would we then have reacted to everything that happened in that last over? Along those lines, how would a Bangladeshi fan have reacted to what happened? Fretted at the result or appreciated the valiant efforts of the inexperienced batsmen?

As another example, consider a typical minor road accident. Almost always, the outcome influences our reaction. How often do we assess – or even care about – the intent of the other driver or possible extenuating circumstances that caused a certain action on his/her part? In that moment when there has been a collision or a near-collision, it is the outcome or the imagining of what would/could have happened that is uppermost in our minds. Not why the other driver did what s/he did or what caused that action. 

As yet another example, think about WikiLeaks or the wars the USA is fighting in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

Which brings me to the crux of this post: what influences our reaction to or our handling of a situation or an individual? The outcome or the intent?

In my earlier post, "Dealing with Reality - I: Behaviour Classification" I wrote about how I use my assessment of an individual’s mindset, disposition, attitude, etc. to help deal with a situation. This post is an extension of sorts of that one – viz., when dealing with a situation, how important is the intent of the individuals involved vis-à-vis the outcome?

Dealing with people is an intrinsic part of dealing with reality. If we are not adept at dealing with people, it is unlikely we will handle reality well – especially adverse reality. 

Over the years, I have invested a fair amount of time and effort (in a very layman-ish and amateur way), in assessing people’s behaviour, in reflecting on my own handling of adverse situations, in observing how people react to situations. In the process, I learnt two important lessons: one, how an understanding of other people’s mindsets helps deal with situations and two, the importance of making a conscious choice of whether we allow the outcome or the intent to influence our decision. 

Consider a child who is irritating you or who spoils something in the house or something belonging to you. Unless the outcome is critical – e.g., tore up some important documents or threw something heavy at the TV – we usually take it in our stride. More often than not, this is because we have – consciously or sub-consciously – decided to focus on the intent rather than the outcome. Much like the case of my then 2-year-old who practised gargling on my laptop ("I Love Evaporation").

Now go back to those two situations – the last-over thriller against Bangladesh and any minor traffic incident that provoked some strain of road rage inside you. Reconsider whether your reaction would have been different if you focused on the intent/extenuating circumstances rather than on the outcome.

At yet, it’s not quite that simple. 

For one, there is the risk of over-rationalising. Merely focusing on the intent or sympathising with the circumstances of another individual cannot and must not absolve anyone of his/her responsibility or accountability. Hence, I will for instance, give only so much leeway to an employee who is habitually late or slacking on the job because of some domestic issues. Similarly, a personal emergency does not give anyone the right to put someone else’s life in danger by driving rashly. 

Secondly, there’s always the inner voice that helps you distinguish the right from the wrong. And hence, no matter what the intent or circumstances may be, what’s wrong is wrong. As with the case of someone who breaks a traffic rule and causes harm or injury to an innocent fellow-motorist.  

Thirdly, there’s the more complex situation – and one where I personally still struggle to deal with – where someone does something good or someone produces a desirable outcome but with what you clearly know are ulterior motives.  You encounter these in public life, in business and in personal life. 

Consider the case of WikiLeaks or the Afghan and Iraq wars that the US is embroiled in. In my opinion all these fall squarely in the third category - even if you can establish a clear outcome or a clear intent it is very difficult to determine whether the outcome nullifies the intent or whether the intent justifies the outcome. 

As the German philosopher  Friedrich Nietzsche said, “there are no facts, only interpretations” – while there is a didactic and figurative element to this, I have learnt that our interpretation of reality plays a critical role in how we deal with it. By the same token, as Abraham Lincoln put it, if we call a tail a leg, a dog will still have only four legs.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy striking a balance – and more often than not, struggling to find that balance – between an objective and subjective treatment of the people I have to deal with and their behaviour...