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What’s Murphy’s Law? How to Better Handle Things Going Wrong

Read Time: 11 mins

What is Murphy's law? It's a popular saying that's often used to explain why things go wrong. Here's what Murphy's law really means and what to do if things go wrong.

Image of a man giving a presentation at work from Envato ElementsImage of a man giving a presentation at work from Envato ElementsImage of a man giving a presentation at work from Envato Elements
 Have you had a presentation go wrong? It could be Murphy's law. (Image source: Envato Elements)

“If anything can go wrong, it will.” — Murphy’s law. 

That, in a nutshell, is Murphy's law — a famous law that can be applied to many areas of one’s life. Even if you've never heard of Murphy's law, you've probably experienced it. Here's a quick quiz to find out:

  • Have you ever experienced getting into the shower and the phone ringing at that very precise moment?
  • Or has your internet had a meltdown five minutes before your virtual conference is about to start? 
  • Or maybe you asked a relative to film a very special occasion in your life, only to discover they forgot to take the lens cap off?

If you answered "yes" to any of these question, you’ve experienced Murphy’s law in action. Have you ever felt that if something bad can happen, it will? You're probably experiencing Murphy's law in action.

At first glance, you might think there’s nothing you can do about it. But when you dig deeper, you’ll discover that you can actually apply Murphy’s law to your advantage. In this article, we’ll take a look at the history behind Murphy’s law and show you how to apply it to your everyday personal and business life. 

The History Behind Murphy’s Law

The story behind Murphy’s law is interesting. According to the Murphy's Laws Site, the saying was named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy. The captain was an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981. The project was designed to see how much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash. 

During the time Murphy worked on the project, the captain discovered that a transducer was wired wrong. Murphy blamed the technician who was responsible for wiring it and said:

"If there is any way to do it wrong, he'll find it." 

According to the story, there was a contractor’s project manager present who recorded the law in their notebook. Later, they added more laws to it. The original Murphy's Law has now been extended to cover other areas of business and life. Some examples include:

  • project planning
  • risk assessment
  • tech and computers
  • love and relationships
  • and more 

A few examples of later laws include: 

  • If you have two versions of a photo, you will send the wrong one to the printer. — Murphy’s law in graphic design
  • No matter how good of a deal you get on computer components, the price will always drop immediately after the purchase. — Murphy’s law in computer industry
  • The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time, the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time. — Murphy’s law in project management.
  • Nothing ever gets built on schedule or within budget. — Murphy’s law in tech

Is Murphy’s Law a Pessimistic Outlook on Life?

Murphys Law Isn't PessimismMurphys Law Isn't PessimismMurphys Law Isn't Pessimism
Don't confuse Murphy's Law with Pessimism (image source: Envato Elements)

If you don’t take the time to give Murphy’s law a second thought, you might be thinking it’s a very pessimistic outlook on life. And just by looking at a couple of examples listed above, nobody could blame you for thinking that. 

But to truly understand the magic of Murphy’s law we've got to dig deeper. When you dig deeper, you’ll discover that the law can, in fact, be interpreted positively. 

In reality, Murphy’s law is less about being negative and more about thinking forward. It's about predicting the worst possible outcome and coming up with a contingency plan that helps reduce negative outcomes and possible setbacks. 

When Murphy’s law shows up in your life, it’s easy to feel like you can’t possibly control every aspect of a project or predict every circumstance. And while there are some circumstances that are beyond your control (like raining on the day of your outdoor party), you can be proactive about the situation and plan ahead for it. 

Let’s take the example of the outdoor party. For example, you could plan to hold your party in your backyard and move it to the inside if it starts raining. Or if you’re planning for a party in a public space, you could rent a tent where your guests can go in. 

When you stop and look at this scenario, it’s easy to see that you’re not being a pessimist who claims it'll absolutely rain on the day of your carefully planned party. You’re merely making sure that in the event it rains, your party doesn’t have to end abruptly. 

Anything That Can Go Wrong, Will

Anything that can go wrongAnything that can go wrongAnything that can go wrong
Sometimes it seems like anything that can go wrong, will. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Let’s start with the very basic Murphy’s law — anything that can go wrong, will. This is true for any area of your life. But most of us go about our lives without really thinking about all the things that could go wrong. And when we plan, the majority of us rarely stop to think about the what ifs.

Murphy law teaches us not to be pessimistic but to expect the unexpected. No matter how carefully we plan, there’s always something that can go wrong. By expecting the unexpected, we can make better plans. We can plan for those unexpected circumstances and come out on the other side without feeling defeated. 

For example, let’s say you've got an important presentation coming up at work. Most of us will rehearse delivering the presentation and holding a Q&A session at the end. It’s rare that we'll plan for unexpected events such as the projector not working, bringing the wrong USB stick, or forgetting the handouts. 

Those are just a couple of examples of things that could go wrong before your presentation. If you get into the habit of thinking about what could go wrong, you’ll be able to create a plan that accounts for the unexpected. In the end, this could help you avoid a lot of frustration and stress down the road.

Things Get Worse Under Pressure

According to various sources on the Internet, this is actually Murphy’s law as it applies to thermodynamics. While it may have its roots in thermodynamics, this law can apply to any other area. 

No matter what kind of job you've got or even if you run a business, there are always moments when pressure is on for various reasons. Maybe you've got a tight deadline to finish the project on time. Maybe you’re launching a new product in time for the holiday season. Or maybe you’re about to have an important meeting with investors. 

Whatever the situation, this would be the absolute worst timing for something unexpected to happen. But once again, it’s not about being pessimistic and thinking everything will go wrong. It’s about knowing that things can go wrong and doing your best to plan for those unfortunate events. 

Let’s take a look at a practical example. Maybe you’re responsible for making sure the new product is launched just in time for your holiday sales campaign. But maybe the deliveries are running late. 

If that’s the case, there is no way to ensure that your product will hit the shelves on time. Or you could discover that a crucial part needs to be replaced and the supplier is out of stock. 

It’s true that you can't magically speed up the delivery chain or make the necessary part appear on time. But you can build in buffer time into every step of the planning and production process to account for the unexpected. This also can help reduce some of the pressure and make the entire project run smoothly.

Everything Goes Wrong All At Once

An image of a person standing in the rain from Envato ElementsAn image of a person standing in the rain from Envato ElementsAn image of a person standing in the rain from Envato Elements
Sometimes bad things seem to happen at the same time. (Image source: Envato Elements)

You could say that this law is just a variation of the saying “When it rains, it pours.” In other words, when one bad thing happens, you can expect other bad things to happen at the same time. 

There are two ways to look at this.

  1. What if that one bad thing that happened makes us more prone to notice other bad things and think the saying is true. Maybe things aren't really as bad as we think. What if those bad things are really new opportunities? Don’t forget that there’s also a saying that says: “When one door closes, another one opens.” 
  2. Another approach is to accept that there are situations where everything will go wrong all at once. You can’t prevent this from happening, but you can make a list of all the potential things that could go wrong.
Try this. Take a piece of paper and make four columns. In the first column, write down what the task (situation, project or event) is. In the second column, write down the ideal scenario. In the third column, note the things that could go wrong. Finally, in the last column, brainstorm a list of possible solutions and things you can do to prepare. This exercise will help you stay calm and know exactly what needs to be done if things don’t go according to plan. 

Smile, Tomorrow Will Be Worse

When a bad thing happens to us, it’s easy to think that things can't possibly get worse. For example, imagine an ordinary morning commute to your job. It’s not an uncommon scenario that your bus might be running late and the weather app on your phone somehow told you it'll be bright and sunny. Yet now it’s pouring rain and you don’t have an umbrella. 

Life is full of unexpected twists and turns and there’s always room for one more thing to go wrong. It’s entirely possible that while you wait on the bus, a passerby might spray you with water accumulated on the street. Or that you’ll discover you forgot an important document at home. 

What matters here is not that you focus on the negative things that could happen. It’s how you deal with those situations as they crop up. They say a smile makes everything better and there’s even research that backs it up. Smiling can trick your brain into thinking you’re happy and even help you reduce stress according to the Association for Psychological Science.

In other words, the simple act of smiling could help you see any bad situation in a new life and banish the thoughts telling you that you’re a magnet for bad luck.

So, the next time Murphy’s law decides to pay you a visit, smile and remember: it'll get worse tomorrow.

Learn More About Coping With Murphy's Law

Do a lot of negative things seem to be happening to you lately? Need help coping? Try the advice in these tutorials:

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Murphy's law is all about expecting the unexpected and being ready for whatever life throws at you. And Envato Elements is the best way to be prepared in your business or career. 

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Use Murphy’s Law To Your Advantage

What does Murphy's law mean in your life? Murphy’s law can seem like an extremely pessimistic outlook on life. But when you understand what it’s all about, you can use it to your advantage and be better prepared for the unexpected. 

And if you want to ensure that you've got assets for any type of business task or an occasion, don’t forget to check out Envato Elements. 

Take advantage of the Envato Elements subscription. You'll always have creative assets ready to download at the click of a button, no matter what type of document, presentation or graphic you need to whip up. 

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