Turning Learning into Experience

We talk about career experience a lot. We tend to value it highly in our society, especially compared to education, which we often denigrate as isolated or irrelevant.

Yet, simply having done a task or having gone through a particular scenario doesn’t mean that we’ve grown from the experience; we have to be aware of the experience to make it part of our personal knowledge bank.

Psychologists have compared a number of ways in which we learn: Rote memorization, highlighting, re-reading, skill practice and cramming are all good examples. However, these are skills applicable specifically to taking a classroom test, which are not situations adults typically find themselves in.

More applicable for your career is learning by teaching – and by doing. However, learning from experience isn’t a passive activity.

Think about Mark Twain’s example regarding a cat:

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well, but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

The point is that the cat is just taking the experience –stove lid equals pain – and not applying any other analysis or insight to it. The cat got burned without noticing anything else about the circumstance, and so learned only half the lesson.

In short, we don’t learn just by living; we have to think about our experiences, make sense of them and turn the lessons into tools for handling future circumstances.

An (Embarrassing) Example

Here’s an example of taking an experience and using it to build new habits.

Once upon a time, in the Paleolithic Age, I was at Consultant Boot Camp. Besides handwriting code in COBOL, we had other sessions intended to prepare for us our future project roles; one of these was titled “Interviewing Skills.” I don’t think the hour we spent really taught us much about interviewing as a holistic activity, but I learned a lot from it anyhow.

Here’s what we had to do:

The class was split into pairs. In each team of two, the partners had identical sets of three dominoes. One person set up the three dominoes behind a screen in any fashion they chose. The other person asked questions, trying to learn how the other’s dominoes were arranged and using their set to visually represent what they’d learned so far.

I was an interviewer, and I completely failed. By the time the fifteen minutes were up, I was the only interviewer in the room who had not successfully determined his partner’s arrangement of dominoes, and I was also completely frustrated. I don’t know what my partner thought of the situation, but she probably thought I was some kind of an idiot.

“Seek First to Understand”

So what happened?

My partner had set up her dominoes in a triangle, with the back two on their edges and the front one on its back. I’d gotten stuck when I asked two questions that involved which domino was touching with other one, and I couldn’t understand how the domino on its back could be touching both of the others.

I had two problems here.

First, I had gotten stuck on the domino paradigm. In most forms of domino games, dominoes are either in line with each other or turned ninety degrees. I tend to arrange things at right angles anyway, but with dominoes, of course they had to be at right angles to each other. It absolutely never occurred to me that my partner would arrange them in a triangle. My partner, however, had never played dominoes, and so was not thinking in the domino paradigm at all.

Second, and by far more problematic, was that I had misinterpreted the exercise. I’m a very analytical person, and I had immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was a sort of “twenty questions” exercise. The problem with that model is that it’s adversarial, but the exercise was not at all intended to be so.

In fact, the person who set up the dominoes wanted me to get it right. She wasn’t trying to hide anything, and it was my fault for asking poor questions.

I’ve since concluded that the correct first question is, “Tell me how the dominoes are arranged.” You ask the open-ended question, gather information, and then get more specific if you didn’t get the understanding quite right.

Seek first to understand (thank you, Mr. Covey).

Lessons Learned

I’ve learned a whole tool chest of lessons from this.

First, usually, when you’re asking for an explanation, the person you’re talking to wants you to understand. You’re not cross-examining witnesses. You should be letting yourself be educated and persuaded.

Second, paradigms are deadly. Even with my poor interviewing strategy, I might have saved the day if I wasn’t trapped in my right-angle domino metaphor.

Finally, both of the first two lessons are highly applicable to real life situations. This wasn’t just failing at a party game; there have been literally hundreds of times since when I’ve had a similar sort of interviewing circumstance, trying to learn from a client or teammate. I’ve had plenty of other cases I’ve observed where the set of possible solutions was constrained because of a base assumption.

To turn these lessons into tools for the future, I had to recognize the wisdom in the experience, take responsibility for my part in it, and then constantly reflect back on it until the lessons became habit. Even the practice of learning has to become a habit!