People say that the best learning comes from experience. I believe that’s true. But I also believe that not everyone learns from every experience. It’s possible to have an amazing event in your work or life and to immediately go on to the next thing and not learn much from it.
How can this be?
The answer is that you may be too busy to think about what has happened. Every experience doesn’t come with a “lesson” attached to it. The secret ingredient to learning from experience is to pause and reflect. To have an experience and to make it a part of your thinking, you have to ask some questions about it to analyze what happened. If you do that, chances are you’ll discover the lesson in your experience. But you have to do the work.
Which questions work? What should you ask? I’ve found that there are five, and the effect is magical.
#1 – What happened? Before the incident escapes your memory, ask yourself what happened. Capture the details. What was the sequence of events? Who did what? Who said what? Get a clear notion of what actually occurred.
#2 – Why did it happen that way? If something good happened, what caused it to be so good? You can learn from that. If it was a mistake or a disaster, why did it happen?
#3 – What were the consequences? How bad was it? Think about cause and effect. Thinking about the impact of an action will tell you why you may want to take a different approach next time.
#4 – What would you do differently in the future? This is the “so what” question. If you ever get in this situation again, what lessons did you learn? What should you change to ensure a better outcome?
#5 – What should you do next? You’ve thought it through, you know what you should have done, but now what? What are your next steps to set yourself up for success?
A wonderful side-benefit of learning from mistakes is that you can stop beating yourself up about it. Yes, you didn’t do what you planned to do and the results were bad. But you did the work to learn from your mistake, and you’re committed to being successful next time. This changes the way you think about the mistake – and yourself. With a new intention, you can let the bad experience go. Pondering these questions is like coaching yourself, and it has a positive effect on your self-esteem.
So anyone can consider these questions and make the most of learning from experience.
Or, if you’re a manager, you can help a member of your team do the thinking. This kind of coaching is a one the most power skills of an effective leader. In the best case, a manager would intervene in the coaching role. When something bad happens, the boss asks the magic questions to stimulate the thoughts that lead to learning. This helps the employee find the lessons from within, which is a much more effective way of learning.
In the worst case, someone who’s had a bad experience might have the kind of boss who doesn’t tolerate mistakes. Reacting with anger, blame and humiliation, such a boss would create barriers to learning. With the opportunity lost, the same mistake could happen again.
Managers learn from mistakes, too. They can facilitate their own learning by asking the magic questions. Or maybe the manager’s boss knows how to coach her, asking the questions to help her become a better leader. But whether you’re lucky enough to have a boss who knows how to coach, you should take responsibility for developing your own effective leadership skills. Be your own best coach.