Photograph taken in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony

Photograph taken in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony

Oscar Wilde was reported to have said, “Second marriages are proof of hope over experience.”  Peter Senge speaks of the illusion of learning from experience.  But so much of our education system and training is based on providing experience in order to facilitate learning.  So we must learn from experience, right?

It depends.  What determines how you will react in a situation?  Experience will be a factor.  But so will your emotional state, conditioning, the nature of the situation itself, your physical state, your mental state and who you are with and finally, the amount of time involved.

Here’s a test – go find a spider’s web that’s at face level to you.  Now, walk into it.  How do you react?  If you are like most people, you will immediately start trying to wipe the web material off of you.  It’s an instinctive reaction.  Only by walking into a spider’s web many more times will you learn not to react that way.  You can learn from experience.

But what if the result isn’t immediate or drastic?

My son-in-law was nearly kicked out of the Army because he was very sick and no cause could be determined.  Eventually, it was learned that parsley was the culprit – he was allergic to parsley.  And the Army puts parsley on everything.  But if his wife hadn’t done her own research, a promising career would have been cut short because the doctors were not trained in dealing with allergies – only illnesses.  And the effects of the parsley were gradual.  A little today and he feels a little off, a little more tomorrow, and it’s a little more off, and so on until he’s in the emergency room complaining of stomach cramps.

We wrote last about the parable of the boiled frog – gradual processes that occur but are ignored because the change is so small over time – until it isn’t.  These are the processes that occupy so much of our lives but we ignore them because they are routine – done without thinking – like putting on a shirt or our pants each day.  We aren’t learning from experience if we don’t observe.

And finally, there are those processes that occur over such a long period of time that by the time we understand the consequences there’s nothing that can be done.  Except pass on our learning to those younger than us – and in the season of commencement speeches – which usually is ignored.

Truly, how much thought did you put in to choosing a major in college?  When I was in graduate school I met a man from Australia.  When he was 12, he had to make a choice – follow  an academic path that could lead to college or a vocational path.  He was put on the vocational path but in his early 20’s realized that he wanted to be in an academic pursuit.  But the door was closed to him in Australia – there was no going to college for him because of decision made when he was 12.  However, he could go to college if he came to America which he did – with his wife and three children- and eventually got his college and graduate degree before returning to Australia.  But how many others are living lives in frustration because they couldn’t go to America because of decisions made when they were 12, or 16, or 18, of 21?

Learning from experience can happen but it requires observation, understanding and application before it’s useful.

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.