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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 July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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