Embrace Unintended Consequences

Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.

~Robert A. Heinlein

We’ve certainly gotten our share of weather this season.  Blistering heat in the Pacific northwest.  Devasting forest fires in Washington, Oregon, and California.  Atlantic hurricanes. Flash floods across the country and around the world.

Of course, if you look hard enough you can always find a silver lining.  As humorist Kin Hubbard observed, “Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while.”

It’s no joke.  In fact, it’s remarkable how much we seem to delight in stating the obvious. Do we think that others won’t notice Mother Nature’s current disposition if we don’t bring it to their attention?


But the weather teaches a deeper lesson in human psychology, one first observed by the sages of the Talmud some 2000 years ago:

Everything is in the hands of heaven except cold and heat.

At first glance, it appears that the author of this remark is playing with our minds.  Truly, is anything less in our control than the weather?  And if this teaching weren’t confounding enough, it seems to contradict a more famous Talmudic dictum that,

Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.

The meaning of the second statement is easier to grasp.  As much as we human beings like to think of ourselves as masters of our own fate, the truth is that we have no control whatsoever over what happens to us.  All we control are our responses (which is the essence of responsibility).

But where our actions will lead, where our choices will take us, and what twists of fate lie lurking around every corner–about these we have nothing to say at all.


Consider these ironic footnotes to history:

The trendy, textured wallpaper invented in 1960 by Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding turned out to be a total failure.  Well, not a total failure.  Several years later it was put to good use.  You know it as Bubble Wrap.

In 1968, Spencer Silver tried and failed to develop a super-strong adhesive for 3M laboratories.  Instead, he produced a stickum that easily peels right off.  His failure gave us Post-it notes.

On the flip side, you may remember John DeLorean, the wunderkind who rose to become general manager of Chevrolet, only to leave General Motors and start his own car company.  His sleek, gull-winged, stainless steel luxury car captured the world’s imagination and became iconic when it appeared in Back to the Future.  Experts predicted stratospheric success.

But production delays and a global recession drove his company into bankruptcy. DeLorean was arrested and charged with drug trafficking, purportedly to raise the $17 million he needed to save his ailing company.

Sometimes we do everything right and fail; sometimes we do everything wrong and succeed.  Ultimately, we have no more control over the outcome of our efforts than we have over the weather.  All we control is how we choose to respond.


Life-changing twists of fate are rare.  But pedestrian choices abound.

When we forget where we left our keys, do we start snarling at the people around us? When we’re late for an appointment, do we curse the red light that makes us even later? When we get caught making a mistake, do we try to deflect responsibility by shifting blame onto others?  When a project fails, do we make excuses, or do we try to learn how to turn the experience of failure into a formula for success?

It’s the way we respond to situations of stress and disappointment that reflects the quality of our character.  This is what the sages call fear of heaven.

Don’t we do a greater service to ourselves, as well as to the people around us, when we laugh at our own foolishness, admit our own mistakes, and quietly accept the inconveniences that fate scatters along our path through life?  Don’t we make it easier for others to look for the good and cope with the bad when we model keeping perspective?  Don’t we come out ahead in the end by challenging ourselves to do better than by cursing the randomness of our perceived misfortune?

We can’t change the weather, but we can dress warmly against the cold and stay hydrated against the heat.  That’s plain common sense.

It’s less common to remain even-tempered and upbeat in the face of life’s bumps and bruises.  But it makes just as much sense.

And it’s entirely in our hands.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Sometimes we do everything right and fail; sometimes we do everything wrong and succeed.

    The butterfly effect in which small changes may lead to greatly unexpected results was found from researching weather.

    I blieve Yonason that anything related to human survical is uncontrollable and humans only may control how they respond. Eathquakes, volcanoes, rain, agroproduction and more are outside the human control.

    I truly enjoyed reading your post.