“Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too.”
Not quite so fast Mr. Huxley. We all know what you mean. But there’s another side to this.
Good intentions do seem to have an unfortunate reputation simply because we often face consequences we didn’t intend or expect, and we end up wondering with vexation or outright despair how on earth did we end up creating such a mess?
I am here to restore the good name of good intentions, and show you that they do not pave roads to hell…or wall, roof and furnish hell itself. And to do that I will summon one of the cognitive biases you might know about: the outcome bias.
This is how it works.
Imagine you wake up one weekend and decide to take your family on a picnic because it’s warm and sunny. As soon as you settle in an idyllic spot, a storm comes to spoil the fun. Everyone gets soaked, you end up with soggy sandwiches, muddy feet and VERY cranky moods. On your way home, you get a flat tire. When you find a garage, you realize you must have lost your wallet. Your partner’s Visa gets declined, and both your cell-phones don’t work: one’s not charged, the other has no reception. The kids are hungry and start to argue. The dog pees on your favorite blanket in the back seat.
So much for family day.
After it’s all over, you sit down at the edge of the bed at night feeling not-so-happy, and think to yourself what a disaster it’s been. And, most importantly, you conclude it was a bad idea to go on that picnic. A very bad idea. And then you think of the phrase “good intentions pave the road to to hell”.
Of course the decision to go on a picnic wasn’t a bad one. What eventually happened didn’t quite turn out as intended. That doesn’t mean you made a bad choice, or that it was your good intentions that led to the unpleasant outcome.
Yet these are the kinds of conclusions we draw in such situations, conclusions that add up to a way of thinking that becomes a pattern. Obviously in some cases, ignorance and carelessness pose as good intentions, AND lead to poor decisions. But we’re not talking about those kinds of situations.
When good intentions are honestly good intentions – when we make an informed decision to the best of our knowledge and ability, no matter how disappointing or negative an outcome, it doesn’t come as the consequence of our intentions being corrupted.
Ok, so who cares…good intentions, bad intentions, good decisions or poor ones, if something doesn’t work out we suffer anyway? So what difference does it really make?
The difference is that we end up needlessly beating ourselves up for imagined sins and we get stuck. Some analysis is always healthy. But too often, healthy questioning turns into a lie we start to believe because we’re not paying attention to the cognitive bias that’s causing the problem.
It’s very tempting to look back and blame our intentions based on an outcome we couldn’t possibly predict. So don’t do that. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions…it’s not even paved! On any path there are the unexpected twists and turns. Sometimes boulders and spikes the size of a house. It doesn’t mean good intentions created the obstacles.
Because good intentions fuel creativity, courage, generosity and growth. Good intentions are good. And informed, honest, authentic choices we make are also good. We can never know everything or be 100% sure. Anything can happen, and yes, that kind of uncertainty we must accept as part of life is unnerving. But let’s not blame good intentions or good decisions. We can blame the bad ones if we find any.