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Outcomes as meanings of our actions

I remember watching my then-two-year-old daughter play in our living room. She used to line up books to build a bridge over a river full of crocodiles that “flowed” from our kitchen to the living room couch.

Anna is five now and while I’m writing this she is at kindergarten. When she comes back, I need to ask her what her goals were and if her process for building a bridge looked like this:

Probably not. I will ask her, but until she comes home I will assume that she built the bridge just for fun. Speaking of Anna, next year she will be starting first grade. When I think of schools I have little hope that they are different here in Germany than in the former Yugoslavia. Anna will be taught the same way of thinking I was taught:

Input > Action > Output > Outcome

She will be told that she needs to take lessons in math, chemistry, biology (input), then to study and learn (action) in order to pass the exams (output) and to get a job and have a good life (outcome). This sounds good in theory, but schools unfortunately do not work like that. Neither schools, nor even college prepare us for getting a job or teach us how to have a good life. They just prepare us to pass the exams and hope for the best. They stop with outputs and even reinforce thinking in outputs by judging us with grades. Even if the intention of grades is good, which is to motivate us to maximize the amount of learning, the education system has one major side effect. 

We start focusing on doing what we are told to do and take outcomes for granted:

Input > Action > Output 

We implicitly assume that outcomes (having a good life) will automatically emerge as a consequence of diligence and knowledge. Thus, from school on we start setting our goals as outputs in form of to-dos (passing exams, graduating, getting a job, finishing projects, selling products, buying a house) or numbers (grades, revenue, profit, salary, increase, decrease, etc…). 

The assumption that outcomes will simply appear in the end is even represented in the common definition of outcomes. If you google the term you will find that outcomes are the way things turn out, or a consequence. And this is it? Is this what outcomes are? This cannot be and we cannot leave it like this. Defining outcomes as a consequence is not acceptable, because it puts us in a passive role, assuming that things that really matter to us will just happen?!? I don’t believe this and I want you to join me in thinking differently. This thinking starts with asking questions like: What does it mean to have a good life? What does it mean to wear a sweater knitted by your grandma? What would happen if we define outcomes like this:

“An outcome is a meaning
created by our actions.”

Suddenly things start to appear in a different light. Anna’s bridge meant having fun balancing over the river full of crocodiles. My sweater design from our art class meant getting something special from my grandma. Thinking in outcomes re-installs the way we thought as pre-school kids:

Outcomes = Current situation + X

Having fun = Pile of books + Building a bridge

Thinking like this allows two very powerful things to happen. First, by using the variable X for our actions and outputs we realize that they are totally interchangeable when we pursue outcomes. Anna usuallyhas funreading her books. Secondly and most importantly, our new definition makes outcomes actionable and empowers us to design them.

What do you think?