Success secrets: you weren't paying attention

We all know people who spend a lot of time doing something and don’t improve. Some manage to jam one year’s experience into twenty. Why? We all can learn from experience, but it is not something that happens automatically. Learning from experience is very much an evolutionary process. We try lots of things, and then eliminate those that don’t work well in order to do more of what produces desired results. In an iterative process, we apply what we learned to the next choices making them better. Continual learning is essential for success in our uncertain and changing world and this process is essential for continual learning. It is very simple, but not easy.

I will get into a few of the less obvious reason why it is easy to fail to adapt in a later post, but the most basic is that we simply fail to keep track and/or we fool ourselves about feedback. My memory deceives me and your memory WILL deceive you. You don't have to trust me on this. Just write things down and check back. Our memory is not like a recording device. Each time we remember something, we must recreate the memory and each time we do we introduce errors. The errors are not random. Memories of previous events are influenced by subsequent ones in ways that allow us to fit memory into our own peculiar narratives, usually in ways that make us feel more prescient. That is why so many people claim to have "known" something would happen but have failed to take action that a reasonable person would do with that knowledge. It is why more people have made money on innovations or investments in theory than in practice. This is not something you can simply will away by thinking about it. If you analyze the problem, you find that you are the problem.

Therefore, an important secret to success is to recognize your limitations. Be a little more suspicious of yourself. Trust but verify. I read a very good book in 1990 called "Decision Traps." The great lesson I took from that book was that I needed to doubt my own veracity. A habit I acquired soon after was to keep a journal. This is not the same as a diary where you write what happened. In the journal I write ideas but also I write predictions along with reasons. After an event has taken place, I revisit my predictions, but before reading them I first write down briefly what I think my prediction was.

I was less surprised by how often the details of my predictions were wrong than I was at how inaccurately I remembered those details. My memory was much more generous than the cold ink and paper. I was not trying to lie to myself, but I was doing it a lot. After more than twenty years of this exercise, my predictions have not gotten very much better, but I have learned to work much better with contingencies. I have detected patterns in my errors and I make sure to compensate when I see myself heading down that well-trodden path to error.

Unless you have some way to systematically track your experience, I don't believe you can effectively learn from it. I am convinced that I am a better leader, better manager, better citizen and probably even a better person as a result of the long-term simple habit of keeping track. I am a little less confident in my judgment. I try not to let the diffidence interfere with my decision making, but I recognize that I am working with probabilities and not trying to discover THE truth.

I use paper notebooks. I tried to put my stuff on a searchable electronic data-base but I found that was counterproductive for two reasons. First of all, it was harder to enter data, so I sometimes/often just didn't do it. More crucial was that the searchable and aggregated data was ruining my ability to use it. I could and did analyze it will all my MBA skills and missed the important lessons. Paper and pen were better tools. I learned to use little pocket sized green notebooks when I was with the Marines in Iraq. We used to joke that they were the Marine PDAs. As in many other things, the Marines had hit upon a simple best solution and since I am trying to learn from experience, I learned from theirs. This, BTW, is another important factor. You don't have to only learn from your own experience. You can get it from others too.

So the first and most crucial precondition for learning from experience is to pay attention to experience and make sure you actually see it. Some people learn much more rapidly than others and I think this is the explanation. It is possible to jam five years of experience into one year. It is equally possible to get less than one year's experience in five years or twenty years, for that matter. If you find that you have gotten not twenty years' experience but the same experience twenty times, it is probably because you weren't paying attention.

Posted by Christine & John at June 28, 2013 8:37 AM
Comment #367688

If you find that you have gotten not twenty years’ experience but the same experience twenty times, it is probably because you weren’t paying attention.
Posted by Christine & John at June 26, 2013 6:37 PM

That’s a great thought C/J and very true. My first memory of learning from experience, other than the usual ones like fire is hot, came with my first business experience as a paper boy at age 12. Each Saturday was collection time from my customers who paid on a monthly basis. Often, I would knock on the door with no answer and yet I knew the people were home. Other times, folks would tell me they would pay me next week and that never happened.

My experience led to the solution. A week past due…no paper delivery. Amazing the results of that simple rule.

Your keeping a journal is a great idea; however I don’t believe that even ten per cent of us have that kind of discipline.

Posted by: Royal Flush at June 26, 2013 6:58 PM
Comment #367699


Re papers - incentives work. It is really low down to rip off paperboys.

Re journals. It is really a good idea and time well spent. But it is important to do the predictions in order to test yourself. Too many people overestimate their abilities. This brings you back down.

Posted by: CJ at June 26, 2013 8:38 PM
Comment #367717

CJ, my paper trading in the stock market is giving me great discipline in testing my knowledge and abilities. I get daily feedback on the correctness of my decision to buy or sell a stock or option.

My mentor set up certain guidelines to follow that should result in more profit than expense. By mid-July I will be trading with real money and the months spent paper trading have given me experience in testing my knowledge and ability.

To be successful as a trader one must exercise discipline and not succumb to either “fear” or “greed”.

Posted by: Royal Flush at June 27, 2013 2:37 PM
Comment #369419

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