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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 November 19, 2019

    How to Become an Early Riser and Stay Energetic

    How to Become an Early Riser and Stay Energetic

    When you become an early riser, you’ll experience a lot of benefits including feeling more energized and having more time to do what you want.

    If you’d like to become an early riser, there are some things you should know before you run off to set your oft-ignored alarm clock.

    So how to become an early riser?

    Here are five tips I’ve discovered to be most helpful in making the transition from erratic sleeper to early morning wizard:

    1. Choose to Get up Before You Go to Sleep

    You’re not very good at making decisions when you’ve just woken up. You were in the middle of a dream in which [insert celebrity crush of choice here] is serving you breakfast in bed only to be rudely awakened by the harsh tones of your alarm clock. You’re frustrated, angry, confused, and surprised. This is not the time to be making decisions about whether or not you should stay in bed! And yet, most of us leave the first decision of our day to be made in a blur of partial wakefulness.

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    No more!

    If you want to be a consistently early riser, try making your decision to rise at a specific time before you go to sleep the night before. This frees you from making the decision in the morning when you’ve just woken up. Instead of making a decision, you have only to follow through on your decision from the night before.

    Easier said than done? Of course. But only for the first few times. Eventually, your need for raw willpower to get out of bed will diminish and you’ll be the proud parent of a new habit!

    Steve Pavlina suggests you practice getting out of bed during the day[1] to get a few of the “practice sessions” out of the way without the early morning fog in your head.

    2. Have a Plan for Your Extra Time

    Let’s say you’ve actually made it out of bed 2 hours before you normally would. Now what? What are you going to do with all this time you’ve discovered in your day?

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    If you don’t have something planned to do with your extra time, you risk falling for the temptation of a “morning nap” that wipes out all the work you put into getting up.

    What to do? Before you go to bed, make a quick note of what you’d like to get done during your extra hours the following day. Do you have a book to write, paper to read, or garage to clean? Make a plan for your early hours and you’ll do more than protect yourself from backsliding into bed.

    You’ll get things done and those results will fuel your desire to build rising early into a habit!

    3. Make Rising Early a Social Activity

    Your internet or social media buddies just don’t have enough pull to make your new habit stick in the long term. The same cannot be said for the people you spend time with as part of your early morning routine.

    Sure, you could choose to read blogs for two hours every morning. But wouldn’t it be great to join an early breakfast club, running group, or play chess in the park at 5am?

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    The more people you get involved in making your new habit a daily part of your life, the easier it’ll be to succeed.

    4. Don’t Use an Alarm That Makes You Angry

    If we’re all wired differently, why do we all insist on torturing ourselves with the same sort of alarm each morning?

    I spent years trying to wake up before my alarm went off so I wouldn’t have to hear it. I got pretty good, too. Then I started using a cellphone as my alarm clock and quickly realized that different ring tones irritated me less but worked just as well to wake me up. I now use the ring tone alarm as a back up for my bedside lamp plugged in to a timer.

    When the bright light doesn’t work, the cellphone picks up the slack and I wake up on time. The lesson learned? Experiment a bit and see what works best for you. Light, sound, smells, temperature, or even some contraption that dumps water on you might be more pleasant than your old alarm clock. Give something new a try!

    5. Get Your Blood Flowing Right After Waking

    If you don’t have a neighbor, you can pick fights with at 5am, you’ll have to settle with a more mundane exercise. It doesn’t take much to get your blood flowing and chase the sleep from your head.

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    Just pick something you don’t mind doing and go through the motions until your heart rate is up. Jumping rope, push-ups, crunches, or a few minutes of yoga are typically enough to do the trick. (Just don’t do anything your doctor hasn’t approved.)

    If you live in a beautiful part of the world like me, you might want to use a bit of your early morning to go for a walk and enjoy the beauty of the world around you.

    If you have a coffee shop open within walking distance, dragging yourself out of bed for a cup of coffee to savor on your walk home as the world wakes around you is a wonderful experience. Try it!

    More to Power Up Your Day

    Featured photo credit: Nomadic Julien via unsplash.com

    Reference

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