When I was stationed at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, one of my goals was to qualify as a docking officer.  The docking officer is responsible for the preparations and actual conduct of bringing a vessel into a dry dock.  This entails making sure all the blocks that the vessel will rest on are properly placed; the dry dock flooded; the vessel brought into the drydock and positioned on the blocks properly.  Sometimes there is a need for a precision docking – meaning that the vessel had to be placed within a 1/2 inch of the target position.  When you are moving a 3000 ton frigate with ropes and capstans and manpower, when the wind is blowing in gusts, the job can be tense – you can go from everything is fine to an Oh, Crap! moment in, well, a moment.
During my first few dockings I would be hyperviligant, but as I gained more experience, I became more relaxed.  I wasn’t becoming blasé, but I was learning what situations I needed to focus on, who I could trust to take care, I could anticipate and be prepared for what might happened, most importantly, I learned what I could and couldn’t affect.  No amount of class lecture, reading, or watching could give me what the real experience did.
Recently, Meredith was called to an emergency meeting on a Friday night to help a client.  Several people were called to the meeting and one of the action items was for Meredith to set up a meeting between the client and a lawyer specializing in the situation.  Another member who was present sent the rest of the weekend repeatedly contacting Meredith to get status reports.  This was a situation that didn’t require the lawyer respond on the weekend,  in fact, we sent a message on Saturday morning and the lawyer replied by 8:05 Monday morning with a meeting between the lawyer and client occurring later that day.  The difference between Meredith and the person was experience – Meredith had it, the other person didn’t.
There’s an old saying that experience prevents problems and problems provide experience.  So how do you gain experience without actually having the problems?

  • There’s the Vince Lombardi philosophy – practice the basics until they become automatic.   Because the basics are what you will likely use to solve the problem when it occurs.
  • There’s role-playing – this is the concept behind holding fire drills – yes, everyone knows that they are not real, but we still all leave the building and assemble where we are supposed to.  It known to save lives.
  • There’s visioning – basically “seeing” the situation and working your way through it in your head. It’s the old adage of going nowhere your mind hasn’t gone already.  World class athletes use this technique before big races.

It’s useful to actively seek out opportunities to expose yourself to situations that prepare you for dealing with problems.   It gives you the opportunity to practice.  For example, I hate needles – the kind doctors stick you with.  I would literally go into shock when stuck.  I decided that I needed to overcome my reaction, so I volunteered to donate blood.  The nurses would tell me as soon as they saw me coming that I didn’t HAVE to donate.  But I persisted and today can be stuck and I’m OK – and with more than 10 gallons donated I can say I’ve done some good.
Recently, Meredith told me the story of a woman barber that totally messed up her first men’s haircut.  So what did she do?  She found employment in a men’s barber shop and she spent a year cutting just men’s hair – until she was fully qualified to cut any man’s hair.
The alternative to gaining experience is gaining experience the hard way – through your own mistakes.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.