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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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