Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What do you learn from your mistakes?

Post 336 - According to Abraham Lincoln, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” Acts of daring are needed to make progress in today’s world. So, don’t be afraid to take a risk and go out on a limb - that’s where the fruit is. Townes Duncan, the former CEO of Compronix, remembers, “Seymour Cray was a friend of my dad’s. I asked him what it was like to know the genius who’d built the world’s first supercomputer company. My dad said ‘Well, actually, he wasn’t so much smarter than me. He just made mistakes a hundred times faster.’” People who are afraid of making mistakes may avoid stubbing their toes, but they won’t make much progress.

It’s important to learn from the mistakes of others - you can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself. Although many managers today find themselves lacking the new skills and knowledge required to tackle their ever more demanding responsibilities, there’s also a relentless drive to make mid-career instruction more practical, meaningful and efficient. Companies now demand that executive education achieve specific, real-world goals and provide an immediate payoff. The business doesn’t come to a halt allowing people to go off and take training classes. Short-duration long-distance schooling using internet conferencing, with courses custom designed for employees of a single company, is clearly more efficient than losing managers for weeks and months at off-site executive education courses.

While these new technologies are quite effective for knowledge dissemination, they’re less so for leadership development. This usually involves changing people’s perspective as well as giving them additional skills. At senior levels, executives learn best through direct interaction with their peers. People learn when their emotions are tapped, when they connect with others and hear their stories. The emotional part of the brain is the gateway to the learning part of the brain. The deepest learning comes from trial, failure, reflection and feedback. Without reflection, you can’t articulate your experience so you lack the concepts you need to understand your situation. You need this awareness before you’re motivated to change. You need an idea of why the change is necessary.

Westerners tend to think of knowledge as an individual matter - “it’s what I know” - but in practice, the Eastern perspective, which is essentially a group perspective, is more relevant for today because it builds the collective capacity to take effective action. Learning isn’t about transferring information from one person to another. Human beings are not very good at information transfer - machines are much better at this. Learning is about enhancing the capacity for effective action and is different from information transfer in that way. However, we don’t usually distinguish one from the other. Training is something that’s done to people; learning is what people are genetically designed to do for themselves.

"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young," according to Henry Ford.

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