Manageable Awfulness and How to Let Bad Things Happen

Letting bad things happen

“If you want to invent life-saving medicine, you need to accept that at some point, people will die.”

A successful life-science entrepreneur told me this during a conversation. At first, I was shocked at the comment. Isn’t the point of creating new drugs or medical procedures to save lives?

But the more I thought about it, what he said made sense. New medical advances will inevitably have complications. Drugs will have unknown side-effects by the time they reach human trials. Some people will die in spite of otherwise helpful treatments.

Obviously, we should aim to minimize these losses. This isn’t a justification for allowing unsafe or untested medicine to reach the general population. However, the only way to reduce the loss to zero would be to stop inventing new treatments, and the cost would be much greater.

This example, on a smaller scale, mirrors a lot of decisions in life. Doing anything important, means accepting a minimum level of bad things happening. The only way to completely avoid losing is not to compete at all.

Eventually, You’ll Make Someone Unhappy

The first time I wrote and sold an ebook, I was terrified. Not because I didn’t know what to write, I had already written a series of articles on the topic. Not because I was worried it wouldn’t sell, the website wasn’t making a large income at the time so any sales would have made me happy.

No, I was worried that someone might demand a refund and tell me the book was worthless.

I wasn’t worried because I didn’t understand what I was writing about. The book was about changing habits, a practice I had obsessively pursued for a couple years before writing (and still do today). I had written about the topic on my blog, and even offered a free preview, so anyone purchasing had a reasonable idea of what they were going to get.

But still, as my first ever product, my fears nagged at me. I set up a money-back guarantee, not for the oft-cited reason that it increases sales, but simply because I wanted to make sure anyone who was disappointed with the book could easily get their money back.

I released the book, and you know what? Nothing happened. I had a small trickle of sales and nobody requested refunds.

As I continued selling products, however, I realized that refunds were inevitable whenever I sold enough. They were usually only a tiny percentage of sales, but a few disappointed customers were inevitable with enough sales.

Another blogging friend recently released his first ebook (with quite a bit more success and fanfare than my first). His sales were successful and he had many positive reviews, but he was frustrated by one customer who angrily demanded a refund and called him a con artist.

The biggest factor in having disappointed customers is the amount of customers. Obviously we should try to minimize disappointment by being straightforward when making the offer, but the only way to have zero unsatisfied customers is to have zero customers.

The Minimum Threshold of Terrible Things that Must Happen

In just about any important pursuit in life, bad things will happen.

Often these bad things will be terrible enough that you’ll want to work hard to avoid them. But even if you did everything possible, they will still happen some of the time. Businesses will infuriate customers. Life-saving medicines will kill people.

Other times, the so-called terrible things will be manageably awful. You might not like getting rejected, being embarrassed or receiving hate mail, but investing a lot of energy to avoid them is fruitless. You may successfully get fewer rejections or be embarrassed less, but you often sacrifice your goal in the process.

Am I Too Young to Share My Opinion?

Writing for this blog has its share of manageable awfulness. One of them is whenever I write an article, there’s a good chance I’ll be wrong. There’s always the worry that in trying to think about the issues of my life and writing my thoughts, I’ll give bad advice.

Considering I’m 21 years old, there’s a pretty good chance that in ten years I’ll disagree with many of the ideas I’ve written. Considering my inexperience, there’s a good chance you’ll disagree with me now.

When I started this blog, that piece of manageable awfulness was a big concern. I was writing at an audience that often had double or triple my life experience. Even the areas I felt more confident writing about, I lacked decades of experience. What if I were wrong? What if I gave harmful advice?

Thinking about it now, after over four years of writing, I realize that if I hadn’t accepted that manageable awfulness, I would have paid a bigger price. For myself, writing here has meant I can live my dream: running an online business, living abroad and constantly learning new things. For everyone else, I’ve received thousands of emails from people telling me something I wrote helped them through a personal problem.

In hindsight, my fears seem a little ridiculous. Most of the readers, I feel, read because they want to connect with a story, not just advice from an expert.

Second, when I have given bad advice, most people reading are usually smart enough to let me know right away. I may not realize when some of my ideas are stupid, but my readers do.

Finally, I’ve done my best to switch from writing in an authoritative style to one that is more open for discussion and alternative ideas. My original goal was to offer advice, now I’d say my main hope is to stimulate deeper thinking and discussion.

What are Your Lurking Fears about Manageable Awfulness?

The funny thing about manageable awfulness is that it almost always easier to deal with in practice than in theory. When you spend a lot of time thinking about what terribly unpleasant thing might happen, fear dominates. When you actually start doing things, it’s manageably unpleasant but far less terrifying.

Think about asking someone out. Before, fear dominates as you fret about whether or not that person will reject you. In practice, you may get rejected, in fact you may even get rejected a majority of the time. That rejection is still unpleasant, but you can live with it.

There’s a choice in most situations where there is a lurking fear of inevitable bad things that will happen. Either you sit out and do nothing, or you do it anyways and feel the rejection, handle the refund, get embarrassed, and maybe end up making something important.

What are your thoughts? Where do you draw the line between manageable, unavoidable awfulness and terrible things that must be avoided at all costs? Where does your fear of making a mistake hold you back from making something meaningful? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Image courtesy of 1Happysnapper

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  • Peter Shallard – The Shrink fo

    Great post!

    I appreciate your candor in sharing some of your fears.

    These sorts of fears often hold us back from taking crucial action. They, in my opinion, often come from an over developed “inner critic”.

    This is that little voice we all have inside our minds that asks insidious questions that sow the seeds of self doubt. The voice is usually formed in one of those cliched parent/highschool moments, when we’re told we can’t succeeed… or maybe we’re rejected in some way.

    Simply identifying is the first (important) step… so thanks for doing just that!

  • John Paton

    Your advice at the end about having to make enough approaches to get success is so true.

    I was at Wimbledon yesterday, and had to ask 26 people before I finally found someone who would give me their ticket for center court for the rest of the day.

    Initially I was scared about making the approaches, but as I went on I worked out I really had nothing to loose. At worst they could say no.

    If you don’t ask you’ll never know!

  • Hotrao

    I agree with Scott on most of the things said, but one thing really made me think: “[…] “If you want to invent life-saving medicine, you need to accept that at some point, people will die.” […]”.

    Ok. Is only a representation of something bigger, but is the key point.

    Life is not everytime full of good things. Also for very lucky people, bad things happen.

    And there’s no absolute measure for bad or good things, because my 3yrs daughter cries for having lost her doll and I understand there’s a pain in her drops bigger than other “adult” feelings.

    Sometime is better to have bad things happen in a sort of sandbox created through anticipation and governance where possible. And if they happen in a sudden way, IMHO there’s nothing wrong in being disappointed and then restart from what happened.

  • Michele Nicholls

    Hi, Scott, thanks for another fine, thought-provoking essay! Firstly, at 3 times your age, I can say that age has nothing to do with wisdom, but what I have found is that one feels things with much greater intensity the younger one is, which can increase the pain level, but also the joy! The fact is, life simply isn’t fair and horrible things happening is inevitable – it’s how you deal with them that makes you, and how you acknowledge and prepare for them.
    Incidentally, one of the aspects of your blog that makes it so readable, and makes me anticipate each post with a certain longing, is that you don’t write ‘AT’ your reader, but most decidedly ‘TO’, which is something many far more mature writers have never learned!
    Thank you again, I look forward to your next musings with excitement ;o)

  • Jack

    Love this post. Great job.

    “The only way to have zero unsatisfied customers is to have zero customers.”


  • Alexander

    Strictly speaking, you shouldn’t avoid anything “at all cost”. You can never fully avoid that while driving you’ll randomly pass out and run someone over. Causing someone’s death is the worst thing you can do, and yet most people drive. Eating a cookie may cause you to choke on it. Even being alive bears great risks to others and we’ll need to accept that.

    Trying your best yields a positive outcome on average. I think we can usually rationally figure out whether a risk is worth it or not. Just like you risk death by eating a car or driving a cookie you risk 100% customer dissatisfaction by executing an idea. But you know it’s worth it.

    The real problem is how to get ourselves to acknowledge the outcome of our rational evaluation and keep by it, even when it starts to clash with the irrational bad feeling we’ll have when we get closer. I’ve been particularly bad at this.

  • Nancy P

    If you never try then you will never fail. Most successful entrepeneurs will be able to tell you about the time they didn’t have success and what they learned from it. It is impossible to keep everyone happy all the time, listen to those that aren’t happy and see if there is value in what they have to say. Most of the time the issues are theirs and not yours.

    If your concern about problems or failures is holding you back then it’s probably worth looking at–what is at the root of what’s holding you back?

  • Karl Sakas

    My favorite line is “the only way to have zero unsatisfied customers is to have zero customers.”

    Absolutely — some people will be unhappy along the way, but if you’re providing a solid product or service, it will be a tiny fraction.

    Customer service expert Ben McConnell refers to the “Tyranny of One” — we should respond to customer feedback but we shouldn’t suddenly add a million new rules (which make things worse for everyone else) just because one person complains: http://www.churchofthecustomer

  • Wendy Irene

    Good for you for facing your fears and doing it anyway, that takes courage! Funny how we let the few bad things that happen sometimes carry a lot of weight, when they shouldn’t. A negative comment should not stay with us more than a positive one; however that is very hard to not let happen. I like the idea of turning a negative into a positive and maybe doing something constructive from it. I believe you know it, but being young with less life experience does not make your thoughts less valuable. It is funny I think no matter how old you are a part of you always feels that way when your audience is older than you. I know I’ve felt that way before. Own your thoughts and beliefs no matter your age, and be open to them changing. That is the best any of us can do!

  • Travis W-B

    Few things work perfectly for everyone. Diets, exercise programs, even ideas may be beneficial to 99.99% of the population, and deadly to the other .01%. Nature never repeats itself when it comes to life forms, and so we can always expect varying results in nature’s universe.

    Taking risks is one of the fundamental challenges of being alive. If you aren’t taking them, you’re as dead you can be without being sealed up in a coffin.

    Great post, Scott.

  • shreevidya

    a very lovely and awesome thoughts. great one!

  • Oleg

    Good post. I think bad things can happen when you have too many creative pursuits and that can be cause of fear of making a mistake. Sometimes you just have to focus on present moment.

  • Lou

    I can’t process so many awesome posts in one night, buddy. I need to go to bed!