History abounds with examples of strivers who worked relentlessly for success in one endeavor or another and exceeded even their own lofty ambitions. Equally plentiful are tales of those who showed just as much commitment and effort, yet failed to achieve their ends. If history teaches us anything, it’s that nothing is guaranteed in this life, except maybe another season of The Simpsons.
This infinity of outcomes may confuse the connection between effort and achievement. After all, anyone seeking to defend skipping practice (or a study session or leg day) can easily find an example of a scenario where someone slacked off the same way but still achieved the desired goal. That’s why considering the connections between processes and outcomes can be so critical to reliable and sustained success.
Shane Parrish at Farnam Street explored the ramifications of making–or missing–these connections:
Good decisions don’t always have a good outcome, just as bad decisions don’t always have bad outcomes. Sometimes bad outcomes happen to good decisions. And sometimes good things happen to bad decisions. Learning to distinguish between when you’re brilliant and lucky is the key to rapid improvement.
He describes a basic two-by-two decision outcome matrix to explore the possible permutations of processes and outcomes. Consider the potential results of preparing or not preparing for an important test:
Good process/good outcome: Prepped for the test, scored higher
Good process/bad outcome: Prepped for the test, did not score higher
Bad process/good outcome: Did not prep for the test, scored higher
Bad process/bad outcome: Did not prep for the test, did not score higher
After every high stakes exam, you can find some test takers who studied hard but underperformed. You’ll also find those that didn’t study at all but somehow aced the test; they’re easy to find… just follow the gloating. But a broader survey of the population will reveal the powerful correlation between preparation and performance that manifests in school, sports, arts, and everywhere else: deliberate practice makes perfect.
Apply this simple matrix to your own life. When you luck into great results despite bad process, take the win and be glad about your good fortune. Do not, however, conclude that the same bad process will lead to similar success. The same applies when you work hard but fail to show improvement when it counts. Keep up the good work, and good things are likely to result next time. Nothing is guaranteed in this life, but peak performance most often follows intensive preparation. When you want better scores, work for them. Good processes are the surest, most sustainable route to good results.