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Why you cannot learn much from past success

Why you cannot learn much from past success

When you do something for the first time and it works, you’ve learned something useful. When you do it again, and it works again, you haven’t learned anything. All you have done is to confirm what you already knew. When you do it for the 20th time, and it still works, you’ve probably become complacent.

What happens if you do it again (now it’s the 21st time) and it doesn’t work? My guess is nothing. You put it down to a fluke. After all, you know this action works. You’ve confirmed that 20 times.

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What if you move to the 22nd time, and it fails again? I’m fairly sure that the answer to what you will do is still the same: nothing. Another fluke? Possibly. But maybe the universe is telling you that your old way of doing things is now wrong. Still, you’ve proved to yourself 20 times that it isn’t, so on you go, still convinced that you are right.

Most managers hate to admit being wrong. The tougher, more macho, and more assertive they are, the more they hate it. It makes them lose face. It undermines the careful picture of unending success that they have been cultivating and threatens their position of influence. So if they’ve proved to themselves 20 times that something works, how many failures do you think it will take before they admit that what used to work, no longer does? 10? 20? 30? 50? My own guess is that the higher numbers are more likely to be close to the truth.

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There are two reasons why so many managers find it so hard to learn effectively. What I have just explained is one of them. The other is similar: you can only learn, in the sense of discovering something you didn’t know before, from making mistakes, identifying what went wrong, then correcting and trying again. But in most organizations, making any mistake is risky, and doing it openly is often punishable by loss of prospects or worse.

Always avoiding mistakes means reducing your possibility of learning
Whenever openly recognizing that you have made a mistake is suppressed, learning is suppressed along with it. And that holds true whether the mistake is one of commission (you did something that didn’t work out as you hoped) or omission (you didn’t do something and things went wrong as a result). In reality, mistakes of omission are by far the worst, since they are hard to prove (and not doing something is more easily explained away or blamed on others, the “rules,” or past precedent). Yet they could have caused you to miss an opportunity that will never come again. More organizational blunders come from not doing or trying something than ever arise from taking an open risk.

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Learning works best (it probably only works at all) when you do something new or different and note the result. Every mistake teaches you something. Unfortunately, the biggest mistakes tend to teach the most, but also come with the most pain, difficulty, and loss. Most people prefer to avoid the pain and loss, rather than accept them and gain the learning. That’s usually what limits their lives and the exploitation of whatever potential Nature has given them. In seeking to play it safe and avoid pain, they stick more or less rigidly to what worked in the past, even if it no longer provides much of a return.

Mistakes of commission and omission
In my example at the start of this post, I took an extreme case, where a previously successful strategy suddenly stops working completely. That’s really quite rare. What happens more often is that either it gradually, almost imperceptibly, begins to be less and less useful; or something comes along that would work better, but is never tried. The first of these instances is like the mistake of commission: you do something, and it doesn’t work as you wanted. That means two things: you know what you did, and you know it didn’t work. So you are at least aware there could be a problem. In the second case (what you did worked, but there might be something that would work better), you may never even recognize that you have a problem. Like a mistake of omission, it wasn’t what you did that mattered, it was what you didn’t do. That’s much harder to recognize and correct.

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The only way to be as sure as you can be that you aren’t missing opportunities, or being held back by past success that no long work as well as they did, is to keep trying new things and making mistakes. That’s what I call “practicing conscious incompetence:” doing things that you don’t know well, or feel competent about, for the express purpose of learning something new. It takes courage and determination. It takes acknowledging that others will laugh at you and going on regardless. It requires the willingness to make a series of calculated risks with your credibility, and maybe your career prospects. But, like certain risky investments, the potential pay-off is huge compared with the amount of risk involved. The trick is to be aware of the risk in advance, to be willing and able to accept it, and to do whatever you can to minimize it, without giving up on the investment.

Here are some ideas to help:

  • Take your risks in as low-key a way as possible. Don’t draw attention to them.
  • Manage the overall level of risk at any one time.
  • Spread your risks over many ideas and trials. Don’t bet the farm on a single thought, unless you are totally convinced it will work.
  • Never try to hide failures. That will prevent you learning from them. You don’t need to draw attention to a mistake. Just acknowledge it, clear up the mess, and move on.
  • Analyze every “experiment” carefully. If something worked, find out why. If it didn’t, discover exactly what went wrong and why it happened. Learning comes from understanding the process, not simply noting the result.
  • If something used to work, but now doesn’t, take that as a warning to start looking at it again. Don’t carelessly dismiss it as a fluke.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on October 30, 2018

    How to Motivate Yourself: 13 Simple Ways You Can Try Right Now

    How to Motivate Yourself: 13 Simple Ways You Can Try Right Now

    Who needs Tony Robbins when you can motivate yourself? Overcoming the emotional hurdle to get stuff done when you’d rather sit on the couch isn’t always easy. But unless calling in sick and waking up at noon have no consequences for you, it’s often a must.

    For those of you who never procrastinate, distract yourself or drag your feet when you should be doing something important, well done so far! But for the rest of you, it’s good to have a library of motivational boosters to move along.

    Whether you’re starting a buisiness, trying to los weight or breaking a bad habit, you’ll learn how to motivate yourself with different techniques in this article.

    13 Simple Ways to Motivate Yourself Right Now

    Despite your best efforts, passion, habits and a flow-producing environment can fail. In that case, it’s time to find whatever emotional pump-up you can use to get started:

    1. Go back to “why”

    Focusing on a dull task doesn’t make it any more attractive. Zooming out and asking yourself why you are bothering in the first place will make it more appealing.

    If you can’t figure out why, then there’s a good chance you shouldn’t bother with it in the first place.

    2. Go for five

    Start working for five minutes. Often that little push will be enough to get you going.

    3. Move around

    Get your body moving as you would if you were extremely motivated to do something. This ‘faking it’ approach to motivation may seem silly or crude but it works.

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    4. Find the next step

    If it seems impossible to work on a project for you, you can try to focus on the next immediate step.

    Fighting an amorphous blob of work will only cause procrastination. Chunk it up so that it becomes manageable. Learn how to stop procrastinating in this guide.

    5. Find your itch

    What is keeping you from working? Don’t let the itch continue without isolating it and removing the problem.

    Are you unmotivated because you feel overwhelmed, tired, afraid, bored, restless or angry? Maybe it is because you aren’t sure you have time or delegated tasks haven’t been finished yet?

    6. Deconstruct your fears

    I’m sure you don’t have a phobia about getting stuff done. But at the same time, hidden fears or anxieties can keep you from getting real work completed.

    Isolate the unknowns and make yourself confident, you can handle the worst case scenario.

    7. Get a partner

    Find someone who will motivate you when you’re feeling lazy. I have a friend I go to the gym with. Besides spotting weight, having a friend can help motivate you to work hard when you’d normally quit.

    8. Kickstart your day

    Plan out tomorrow. Get up early and place all the important things early in the morning. Building momentum early in the day can usually carry you forward far later.

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    Having a morning routine is a good idea for you to stay motivated!

    9. Read books

    Read not just self-help or motivational books but any book that has new ideas. New ideas get your mental gears turning and can build motivation. Here’re more reasons to read every day.

    Learning new ideas puts your brain in motion so it requires less time to speed up to your tasks.

    10. Get the right tools

    Your environment can have a profound effect on your enthusiasm. Computers that are too slow, inefficient applications or a vehicle that breaks down constantly can kill your motivation.

    Building motivation is almost as important as avoiding the traps that can stop it.

    11. Be careful with the small problems

    The worst killer of motivation is facing a seemingly small problem that creates endless frustration.

    Reframe little problems that must be fixed as bigger ones or they will kill any drive you have.

    12. Develop a mantra

    Find a few statements that focus your mind and motivate you. It doesn’t matter whether they are pulled from a tacky motivational poster or just a few words to tell you what to do.

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    If you aren’t sure where to start, a good personal mantra is “Do it now!” You can find more here too: 7 Empowering Affirmations That Will Help You Be Mentally Strong

    13. Build on success

    Success creates success. When you’ve just won, it is easy to feel motivated about almost anything. Emotions tend not to be situation specific, so a small win, whether it is a compliment from a colleague or finishing two thirds of your tasks before noon can turn you into a juggernaut.

    There are many ways you can place small successes earlier on to spur motivation later. Structuring your to-do lists, placing straightforward tasks such as exercising early in the day or giving yourself an affirmation can do the trick.

    How to Stay Motivated Forever (Without Motivation Tricks)

    The best way to motivate yourself is to organize your life so you don’t have to. If work is a constant battle for you, perhaps it is time to start thinking about a new job. The idea is that explicit motivational techniques should be a backup, not your regular routine.

    Here are some other things to consider making work flow more naturally:

    Passion

    Do things you have a passion for. We all have to do things we don’t want to. But if life has become a chronic source of dull chores, you’ve got a big problem that needs fixing.

    Not sure what your passion is to get you motivated? This will help you:

    How to Get Motivated and Be Happy Every Day When You Wake Up

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    Habits

    You can’t put everything on autopilot. I’ve found putting a few core habits in place creates a structure for the day.

    Waking up at the same time, working at the same times and having a similar productive routine makes it easier to do the next day.

    This guide will be useful for you if you’re looking to build good habits:

    Understand Your Habits to Control Them 100%

    Flow

    Flow is the state where your mind is completely focused on the task at hand. While there are many factors that go into producing this state, having the right challenge level is a big part.

    Find ways to tweak your tasks so they hover in that sweet spot between boredom and maddening frustration.

    Easily distracted and hard to focus? Here’s your solution.

    Final Thoughts

    With all these tips I’ve shared with you, now you know what to do when you’re feeling unmotivated.

    Find your passion and develop a positive mantra so when the next time negativity hits you again, you know how to stay positive and motivated!

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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