Why Things Always Go Wrong

This is what happens when Murphy's Law and the Peter Principle meet the Seven Deadly Sins.

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By Steve Tobak

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Probably the most insightful adage I learned growing up was Murphy's Law: Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

The Peter Principle, which says that everyone eventually rises to the level of his own incompetence, is essentially Murphy's Law for the business world. The title of the book was actually The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.

You probably think Murphy and Peter were cynics or at least fatalists, but they weren't. Their theories are true. I know that from experience. Very up close and all-too personal experience.

I know what you're thinking: What a downer. This guy's a negatron, unlucky, depressed, or all three. Au contraire, mon ami. OK, maybe I'm a little pessimistic. But I'm actually very lucky and mentally stable, as long as I stay on my meds. ;-)

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The truth is, things always do go wrong … under certain conditions. Over the years, I've identified what those conditions are and some of them, strangely enough, are suspiciously similar to the seven deadly sins. No, I didn't copy and paste. Why, do I sound guilty? Uh oh …

Guilty. I grew up in Brooklyn where guilt is a way of life. To this day, when I see a police car my first instinct is, "What am I doing wrong?" Funny thing is, when you feel guilty, you sound guilty and look guilty. Whether you did anything wrong or not, everyone thinks you did and treats you accordingly, meaning like you're a criminal or at least untrustworthy.

Whatever you do, don't make whiny excuses. They always sound like, "The dog ate my homework."

Mindless. Heard of mindfulness? This is the opposite. It's what we spend most of our time doing: Blabbing, distracted, scatterbrained, unfocused, that sort of thing. When things go wrong, you can usually trace it back to saying, writing or doing something really dumb because you weren't paying attention.

Take it from me. Listen and think, then speak and act. In that order.

Superior. Turns out that thinking you're special and actually being special are two very different things. Those who think they have all the answers never do. And people just love to watch them fall off their high horses, which they usually do. I should know. The young me was such a know-it-all, I even annoyed myself.

I've always heard that knowing how little you know is a sign of wisdom. That's a good thing because, at this point, I'm pretty sure I don't know a thing.

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Jealous. It seems sort of obvious in retrospect, but I've spent a good chunk of time thinking life was a zero-sum game. In other words, for me to win, someone else had to lose. Comparison shopping is fine. Comparison living, not so much. Some of the biggest mistakes I've ever made involved wallowing in that deep dark bottomless pit.

This CEO once gave me a great opportunity, but I squandered it because I wanted to be in his shoes. I was wrong and it cost me a fortune. Did I learn my lesson? Nah.

Entitled. In this sense, it means wanting what you didn't earn and don't necessarily deserve. Since I have an unusually strong work ethic, the manifestation I'm most familiar with is trying to get my wife to do things for me even though I've been a jerk for a month. Each time it builds up a little resentment that, over time, snowballs and buries you in an avalanche.

Think of work and life as an enormous balance sheet. You get out what you put in. No more, no less.

Greedy. There's an old saying in the investment world: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. Everyone who lost a fortune when the dot-com bubble burst knows exactly what it means ... and that includes me. The smart money never tries to time the peak or the bottom. Instead, always leave something for the other guy.

Also, if you're generous with those in need, it usually comes back to you in some way. I don't know about Karma and future lives, but in this one, what goes around usually does come around. Don't ask me why, it just does.

Dishonest. My wife thinks I'm the reincarnated snake from the Garden of Eden. Maybe that's what this chronic scaly rash on my … um, never mind. Not that I'm dishonest, but she has caught me BS-ing on more than one occasion. I call it schmoozing. Whatever.

The truth is, spinning reality, making yourself out to be what you're not, or flat-out lying and cheating just makes life complicated and usually ends badly. If you want to live a relatively happy and carefree life with few unintended consequences, just be yourself.

Related: Never Turn Down a Paying Customer

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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