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The Myth of Experience

Myth of Experience

WE LEARN from experience. We’d be silly not to. But the question becomes, what are we learning? Experience is a powerful teacher, and therein lies the problem. We may think we are gaining wisdom, when in fact we are just reinforcing the wrong lesson just as powerfully.

In The Myth of Experience, Emre Soyer and Robin Hogarth write that “while experience still leads to learning, there is no guarantee that its lessons accurately represent the reality of a situation.” We naturally assume that what we see is all there is.

Experience rarely gives us a complete picture of the situations we face. What we think is reality is just what we can see. And this is true in certain circumstances—in learning environments that are kind. In kind learning environments like cycling and tennis, “decision makers receive abundant, immediate, and accurate feedback on their actions and the rules of the game remain largely constant.” If everything we did was like tennis or cycling, then the lessons we gain from experience would be fairly reliable. But many/most experiences in life are not like that.

Much of the time, our circumstances are not that reliable. Our activities fall into the category of wicked learning environments, “where experience is constantly subject to a variety of filters and distortions.” That means what we think we are experiencing does not correspond with reality. These circumstances “may not only fail to represent a given situation accurately but also constantly feed us a convincing illusion. The rules can change suddenly and dramatically, rendering our institutions obsolete.”

So, what do we do? Rejecting what we think we know can be very difficult.

Two Crucial Questions You Need to Ask

Recognizing that what we are experiencing may not be connected to reality is the first step. Next, ask two questions about what you are experiencing:

What’s missing?

Is there something important missing from my experience that I need to uncover is I hope to fully understand what is happening?

And What’s irrelevant?

What irrelevant details are present in my experience that I need to ignore to avoid being distracted from what is happening?

How We Learn from Experience

Our experiences quickly become part of a story we tell ourselves. And these stories become the basis for the judgments and predictions we make. They help us to form cause-and-effect relationships. While these stories can be beneficial to us, they can also be too simple to adequately capture the reality of the situation. And we can see stories where none exist—no cause-and-effect. When we tell this story enough, it can be hard to accept anything else.

If not handled with care, our experience can make us believe in the wrong causes, expect unrealistic consequences, evaluate performances inadequately, make bad investments, reward or punish the wrong people, and fail to prepare us for future risks. Worse, we may not even notice that we are acting upon faulty stories and fail to revise them in a timely and appropriate way. As a result, we may end up solving the wrong problems, using inadequate methods, and failing to achieve our objectives.

And we need to be careful about learning from the experiences of others. We’ve all seen and read them: The 8 Things Billionaires Do Every Day. What the Most Productive Do Before Breakfast. 10 Common Traits of Effective Leaders.

These lists can be helpful in that they get us to think about our habits and give us insight into what’s possible, but how accurate are they. I mean, did all of the people interviewed diligently do everything on the list? Are these things they do the result of their success or the cause of their success. Are they predictive? What about people who did these things and failed?

As with virtually all complex problems in life, the value of any strategy for success depends on context and circumstances.

The road to success for some people and organizations may involve unfairness, deceptions, or other unethical behaviors. These costs are also often overlooked when people experience, analyze, aspire to, and glorify the resulting achievements. Yet we may find that successful ends can’t be justified by immoral means.

For all these reasons, even if they sound convincing and commanding, lessons of experience based exclusively on others’ success are unreliable. They’re likely to leave us with a belief that success is more objective and predictable than it really is.

If we are to learn the right lessons from experience we need to ask ourselves, what’s missing and what’s irrelevant from our situation. And The Myth of Experience illuminates the way.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 05:43 PM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Personal Development , Thinking



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