Experience, they say, is the best teacher. So why do so many people with so much experience do so many stupid things? They fail to take the time to reflect on experience and to observe the interaction of habits and impulses. Don’t make that mistake or you may never get beyond mediocrity in life.
In a world of constant and rapid change, perhaps the most important habit for success is to learn from experience • both our own experience and the experience of others. That, it has been said, is a defining characteristic of the human species: the ability to learn not only from our own but also from other people’s mistakes.
Unfortunately, too few people make this characteristic a lifelong habit. They end up with lots of experience, but they don’t continue to learn from that experience over time. Instead, they end up repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Or else they adopt a hit or miss strategy, striking out in new directions that usually end up missing more than they hit.
An upcoming article by a friend of mine at The Ohio State University, Cynthia Uline, offers some insight into this phenomenon of experience without learning through John Dewey’s 1922 description of impulses and habits. Impulses, according to Dewey, are unlearned and native while habits are learned and ordered. People who fail to learn from experience fail to enter into a conversation with the impulses and habits in their own lives and the lives of others.
Both impulses and habits have positive and negative dimensions. Impulses promote growth and free imagination, but they can also dissipate energy and hinder movement. Habits introduce continuity and intellectual efficiencies, but they can also codify behavior and mollify thinking. Why do we cut off the ends of the roast before putting it in the pan? Because we’ve always done it that way! There may be no good reason at all.
Uline observes that Dewey views active and consistent reflection on the interaction between impulses and habits as critical to human learning. Old habits combine with new impulses to produce choice and movement. Microsoft may have trademarked the question “Where do you want to go today?” but it’s the universal question of impulse. Reflection on that question, in light of our existing patterns of behavior, can produce both clarity and commitment.
Through reflection, Uline writes, we can mentally experiment with “various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses, to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon.” We can “rehearse each possibility without ever risking actual failure.” This process of reflection can lead to smarter action, which can lead to new reflection, which can lead to smarter action, until old habits are eclipsed by new ones.
Unfortunately, many people in our busy-busy world fail to make time for such reflection on their actions. As a result, one of two things happens. Either they continue to act according to existing patterns, even when those patterns have become dysfunctional (habit), or they randomly change their patterns of activity, with the hope that something will hit the mark (impulse). Such dumb actions come at a price: even when they work, people don’t know why and they find themselves unable to replicate and sustain their success.
People who continuously learn from experience do not make this mistake. They take the time to step back and think about their lives. They imaginatively listen to both their impulses and habits to discern what needs changing and to act accordingly. They examine their lives, to borrow a line from Plato, and by so doing they make their lives worth living.
This is not to say that you have to figure everything out ahead of time before you can take action. Au contraire! I frequently urge my coaching clients to take experimental actions that are based on tentative hypotheses, as long as such actions emerge from honest reflection and conversation. One can always make adjustments as long as one is engaged in a self-conscious process of personal and organizational development.
Such reflection needs to take place on a daily basis. We need to have what Tim Gallwey calls both short and long stops. Taking a half hour at the start of every day, immediately after you wake up, to observe the interactions between your impulses and habits can make a big difference in how the day goes. You may choose to handle a situation or to approach a problem in an entirely different way. You may also catch wind of something bigger than your plans. That’s the advantage of a significant morning stop. It can put you on an entirely different track.
Reflection does not always have to take so much time, however. Do not discount the importance of brief reflections throughout the day. Pausing to reflect before you eat is a proven strategy for enjoying your food and eating less. Pausing to reflect before you meet someone, even for 30 seconds at the door before you enter a room, can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your attitude, approach, and demeanor. This works at home as well as at the office.
Ironically, the best habit for success is to examine one’s habits and impulses on a regular basis. From there you may change your habits with a reasoned hope for success. An occasional big stop, on vacation or at a retreat center, may be required for really big changes. But the bread and butter of learning from experience come from the daily habit of looking at our lives.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
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Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
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