What If You Hadn’t . . . Upstream and Downstream

If You Hadn’t?

  • What if you hadn’t buckled your seat belt?
  • What if you hadn’t kept your blood pressure under control?
  • What if you hadn’t had kids?

What if you hadn’t stayed home the past few weeks?

What didn't happen

We rarely know the answers to these kind of questions. The things we prevent from happening aren’t easily measured. These are upstream things.

It’s easier to measure downstream things . . . fires we put out, addictions we overcame, criminals we arrested.

As states reopen, either in phases or full-out, some are saying our stay-at-home efforts were in vain because the coronavirus didn’t get out of hand in our state.

True? Not true? How can we know?

We often undervalue what DIDN’T happen if we can’t measure it. We never know how many fires didn’t happen because someone practiced fire prevention.

We don’t know how many people didn’t get COVID-19 because of our staying at home. 

Work from Upstream 

Staying at home has been an upstream activity.

Dan Heath explains upstream activities in his excellent new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. 

“Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred; upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.”

By staying home, we prevented many health problems from occurring.

But we can’t prove that. Heath explains “the prophet’s dilemma“: it’s a prediction that prevents what it predicts from happening, a self-defeating prediction.

“What if Chicken Little’s warnings actually stopped the sky from falling? The Y2K bug was an example of the prophet’s dilemma. The warnings that the sky would fall triggered the very actions that kept the sky from falling. Maybe what society needs is a new generation of enlightened Chicken Littles.”

We often preach upstream principles to our children. We’d rather them say no to a dangerous behavior from the get-go instead of saying yes and dealing with consequences later.

It’s also what God does with us. He advises upstream behaviors for our benefit, to keep our lives wholesome and healthy and as problem-free as possible.

More Downstream to Come?

So now what will happen? With the silencing of Chicken Little’s voice, more businesses are opening again.

We’ll find out in a few weeks if the gamble was worth it.

And if there are more new cases and spikes in hospitalizations? We’ll have to do more downstream work of throwing life preservers.

We can pay to fix problems once they happen, or we can pay in advance to prevent them.”

We’ll always need people around to do the downstream work. Things happen and we need rescues. God’s grace is the best downstream gift I know. Doctors and nurses are downstream gifts, too. 

“We will always want someone there to rescue us. The point is that our attention is grossly asymmetrical. We spend our lives consumed with problems that we might have avoided altogether.”

If I can avoid a problem or two altogether, I’d prefer that.

I plan on continuing coronavirus upstream actions awhile longer: staying home as much as possible, wearing a mask when I’m out, and practicing social-distancing.

I’ll try to be patient in the process. It can take awhile to see which fruit grows from either staying home or from going out.

“Downstream work is narrow and fast. Upstream is broad and slow(er).”

Taking an upstream approach isn’t always popular. Or easy. But it’s usually worth it.


Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks to Net Galley
for the review copy of Upstream

21 thoughts on “What If You Hadn’t . . . Upstream and Downstream

  1. Pam Ecrement

    Love how you reviewed this book in the light of what is happening. It was a great example. As I was reading it and thinking of so many things I have read during this time, I think there was more Upstream thinking needed in so many places and about so many things before it became the scourge is has become in the U.S. The concept of Upstream reminds us that our choices have consequences and even when it appears we didn’t make a choice, we did.

  2. Martha J Orlando

    I love this concept of upstream/downstream thinking, Lisa. Yes, hubby and I are still practicing the upstream route until things are much calmer. I don’t think we will ever know for sure if these preventative actions we’ve taken helped, but certainly, they haven’t hurt.
    Stay safe!

  3. Beth Steffaniak

    We are keeping those same mindsets and practices in place too, Lisa. I do think it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Besides, here in Illinois, the restrictions are still rather strict. I think we are one of only a handful of states towing the line until the data improves. Thanks for this reminder and the encouragement to stay at the right thing! Pinning and tweeting!

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Some will call me inhumane,
    some will say I’m just a jerk;
    to me it’s really all the same,
    but we must get back to work.
    Preserving life’s a noble goal,
    but we can’t afford it now;
    it has taken heavy toll,
    and in truth we’ve no means how
    to scale back what’s so interlaced,
    for nothing’s really nonessential;
    and it’s really time we faced
    the fact that this is consequential
    to infrastructure that mustn’t freeze
    although we lose the least of these.

    For what it’s worth, I write this as someone in a very high risk group, with metastatic lung tumours.

    Don’t protect me; protect the country, and our way of life, because if we lose it, there will be civil and government savagery that will make the Civil War look like a garden party.

  5. Barbara Harper

    I like this concept. I had never heard it before. We’re still practicing upstream measures, too. I’d much rather prevent something than deal with the consequences.

    Our state is reopening in three phases, with a few more businesses opening in every phase. It’s frustrating that it will take two weeks after those first steps before we see if the virus is spreading more.

  6. Lesley

    It’s true, we hear so much about numbers of deaths etc that it’s easy to feel like what we’re doing is not worthwhile when actually it probably is preventing it from being much, much worse. It’s true that we don’t always see the impact of the upstream approach so easily, but it is better in a lot of cases to try to prevent problems before they arise.

  7. Lauren

    This is a really neat concept, and yes, upstream actions do sound far sounder than downstream ones. I think my problem right now it it’s sometimes hard to figure out whether coronavirus or economic disaster should take upstream precedence. I can sometimes change my opinion 180 degrees within five minutes of thinking time (or one dramatic edition of the evening news, as the case may be). Like you, though, no matter how quickly our state reopens things, I will be continuing to observe all safety protocols for preventing coronavirus for the foreseeable future.

  8. Teresa

    As always your posts are thought provoking. I see both sides but lean towards safety….I don’t my grandchildren or children to get sick. Thank you for writing these words and sharing!

  9. Lynn

    Very thought provoking! The upstream approach is harder, but thinking about paddling upstream, it also builds strength and the slower pace gives more time to consider our environment to make wiser choices. A wise way to travel, indeed!

  10. Lois Flowers

    “God’s grace is the best downstream gift I know.” I totally agree, Lisa. I also echo the other commenters thoughts about appreciating your perspective here. “Better safe than sorry” comes to mind … along with praying for wisdom and trusting that God will see us through. Hugs, friend.

  11. Laurie

    I loved reading your very thoughtful approach to the situation. I totally agree – we do need to take upstream actions right now. If not for ourselves, for our elderly and immunocompromised friends, family, and neighbors. We are all God’s children and all in this together!

  12. Mary Geisen

    I love the language of upstream and downstream and how you related it to the current times. I am the person who will stick with the upstream practices for awhile. I am praying that as our states open up we find that there is not a huge uptick in the virus.

  13. Bev @ Walking Well With God

    Lisa,
    There are some things in life for which you don’t get a “do-over.” God gave us a brain to use and common sense to employ – we ought to use them. My dad was the king of “upstream” thinking, but we need to watch for the thin line that crosses over into trying to control everything. It’s a tender balance between wise discernment and trust. Joining with you in attempting to find the right balance. Meanwhile, I tend to err on the safe side…
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

  14. Anita Ojeda

    I’ve never heard of this concept before, and it fascinates me! I guess as Christians we do a lot of ‘upstream’ work ;). I know that the Navajo Nation is having a horrible time right now with deaths and new cases daily :/. It’s really hard for our students. Many of them want to be here at school and were looking forward to our summer program. Pray that we’ll be able to have a program for them in July–the Navajo Nation is closed through June 7 now.

  15. Jean Wise

    good example to apply to our current situation. I used the upstream downstream story all the time when I taught public health nursing and it certainly fits our mindset now. You stated it perfectly.

    One of my prayers has always been” thank you for protecting me from all the things i never saw that could have happened. “

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