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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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