Draw Little Conclusions, Not Big Ones

Laura Vanderkam
Forge
Published in
3 min readApr 7, 2022

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Not too long ago, I received a note from a woman who had just returned to work after having her second child. While she had managed life with one baby quite well, juggling two little ones and a burgeoning workload was wearing her out. After a rough patch of limited sleep, she wrote me that even though she liked her work, she’d been thinking about resigning, and accepting that “I can’t have it all anymore.”

I wrote back that the first few months with an infant aren’t easy on anyone. But when things go wrong, I try to repeat this phrase: Don’t draw too broad a conclusion. The human brain is wired to avoid pain, and one way to redeem a bad situation is to try to learn a lesson. That way, the brain thinks, you won’t experience that pain again. But if you’re not careful, you can learn the wrong lesson, or draw such a broad conclusion that you cut yourself off from a lot of good things. And that could be even more painful than the first problem.

If you look around, you see that the tendency to draw broad conclusions comes up again and again. Someone has a bad experience during an international trip and decides it’s better to stay close to home where they’re less likely to miss an important announcement on the train because they don’t understand the language (or eat something that disagrees with them). Back when the stock market tanked in 2008, a friend told me that he’d gotten out completely — he wasn’t going to lose 30 percent of his money ever again!

He drew a broad lesson, but it wasn’t a wise lesson. The S&P was back up to where it had been in a year or two, and then went on a meteoric rise over the next decade. If my friend stuck with his conclusion, then his portfolio wouldn’t have lost 30 percent of its value in a stock market crash, but it would have lost 30 percent of its value to inflation sitting in a savings account. And that’s before we even get to the opportunity cost of missed long-term returns.

Likewise, someone who decides to stay close to home won’t experience whatever travel woe befuddled them during that adventure. But they will lose out on being exposed to all sorts of amazing things that happen in the broader world.

So it’s better to draw smaller conclusions rather than big ones. A rough trip doesn’t need to teach the lesson that you should…

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Laura Vanderkam
Forge
Writer for

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.