Good news deserves skepticism

I have been accused by Zoran (a work colleague) of looking for the mistake or downside risk in every piece of good news. He is far from the first person to make this accusation, and that’s because he’s right. I’d go further and say I look for the extra downside in bad news as well. But, I don’t see this as a bad thing


Because there are far more ways to fail than to succeed, so it is well worthwhile looking at and protecting against what could go wrong, even when success looks assured, to make sure it is in fact assured. Likewise, unexpected good news could end up hurting more than helping unless you properly understand it … and that looks a lot like looking for why the good news might be wrong. I would assert that this attitude lets you handle tougher challenges with a better chance of pulling them off, and that so far it appears to have worked for me (but I won’t get any more positive than that – I could have just been lucky, and given the post title, I hope you’d expect nothing more positive).

Because it often takes a long time to be sure of success – much longer than typical corporate reward or appraisal timescales allow. So, it is imperative to understand the probability of good news going sour if you are using it in something like an appraisal. That may sound negative, but it really means that those who really delivered the value are more likely to get the reward, not those who just got lucky. There is a flip-side to it as well – those who worked very hard and creatively, but for whom serendipity did not play out should not go unrewarded.

Because lots of things ‘just happen’ – good and bad. If you want to take the praise for random good things, then you need to be prepared to take the rap for random bad things. And, randomness sadly explains an awful lot more about what succeeds and what doesn’t than any of us might like to admit (at least for anything complex – i.e. interesting). I’m actually not quite as mercenary as making this balance in real life – I just want to know that when I feel good about achieving something then I am justified in doing so.

Just because. I’m wired that way. That doesn’t make it right per se, but it does mean that I will find post-hoc rationalisations like those above quite credible. There is a catch-22 here. These rationalisations feel like good news, given how I naturally think. So, by my own logic, I should treat them with suspicion. But, if I treat them with suspicion then I should feel more comfortable about feeling good, and so I should no longer be suspicious.

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