The Myth of Learning from Experience

Conventional Wisdom
Conventional wisdom advises us that experience is the best teacher. Many times experience yields its most profound lessons only after much struggle or thought. The force of that “Eureka!” striking our minds leaves a deep imprint. From experience, we learn directly. The lessons aren’t filtered and diluted by a third party. We have a deep bias toward the validity of personal expereince. Third parties can’t always be trusted, but personal experience gives us firsthand feedback.  For better and (as we’ll see) for worse, we trust what we can see and touch. And this is where our beloved instructor shows signs of weakness. The effectiveness of experience as a teacher, it turns out, depends a lot on her students.

The Limits of Experience
The lessons we have learned from experience are often profound. They stick with us, so we regard experience as a skilled tutor. But why is it that we so frequently repeat the same mistakes over and over, long after we ought to know better? Consider how many times you have heard or thought to yourself some variation of the following : Things didn’t work out like I planned despite everything I did. That one small assumption is at the root of many missed opportunities to benefit from our experiences. But what if our default reaction to mishaps sounded more like this: Things didn’t work out like I planned because of what I did. That minute shift in thinking has enormous implications. That first response is how we think when we take for granted that we have all the necessary information to evaluate our methods in the context of our situations. The second response is based on the realization that there is often more to the story than what experience grants us access to.

Feedback Mishaps
Feedback is fundamental to learning. By feedback we correct our mistakes, refine our knowledge and improve our performance. We depend on feedback, yet feedback is often mysteriously absent when we need it most. Below are three common types of feedback mishaps that sabotage our lessons learned from personal experience.

  1. Delayed feedback occurs when cause and effect are separated by a significant amount of time.
  2. Non-local feedback occurs when the effect resulting from some event shows up in a place other than where the event occurs.
  3. Indirect feedback occurs when you are on the receiving end of non-local feedback.

Imagine for example that you are the president of an organization, and you have just pitched your most brilliant idea to be included your company’s new strategic plan. And imagine that everybody is underwhelmed, but they would rather not offend you or get on your bad side. Instead of offering constructive criticism, they will more likely bad-mouth your idea to everybody else. How would you know to make an adjustment in your plan, or perhaps in how you communicate your plan? You won’t because the feedback is non-local. So you bulldoze ahead, working for months to refine your contribution to the strategic with the assumption that everyone is on the same page. But when it’s time for the company to vote on which initiatives make it into the final version of the strategic plan, your most innovative idea is rejected. You finally receive your delayed feedback. Up until this point, you have only heard positive, though superficial, comments about your initiative. So your assumptions about what went wrong will most likely be skewed. If people simply didn’t buy in to your plan from the beginning, they would have told you, right? So you probably search for the fault somewhere else.

This is where indirect feedback rears its head. And this is where things get really tricky. It turns out your initiative actually is as brilliant as you imagined. And most of the people in your organization agreed. The reason they bad-mouthed your plan behind your back and voted your initiative down at the last minute was because of your hardest working, most vocal supporter: the VP who has secretly held a grudge against you for the past 3 years because you were promoted to president instead of him. You never even knew he was upset about it until you overheard some breakroom gossip (aka delayed feedback) after the vote.

What Did you Learn From That?
When feedback is distant in time or in space, we lose the capacity to associate cause and effect. We miss the opportunity to learn from experience. And we become blind to root causes. So next time things don’t work out like planned, or you’re trying once again to solve a problem that defies your best efforts, remind yourself that you may not be seeing the whole picture. And keep in mind that experience sometimes neglects to inform you of relevant information.

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