What did you learn last year?
It’s a simple enough question, and it would be easy to answer it with, “Well, I learned a lot!”
But I’d like you to get more specific. What’s something specific you learned in the last 12 months that either you didn’t know before or you had to re-learn?
What comes to mind?
The Value of Experience
After working with over 200 executive coaching clients, I’ve noticed experience can sometimes lead to complacency. Someone with 20 years of experience may actually only have one year of experience repeated 20 times. They’re living off what they learned years ago.
Certainly, experience has great advantages. When I step onto a plane, I often look into the cockpit and hope to see gray hair or no hair! I’ll gladly take the pilot who has flown for 25 years over a 25 year old.
Why? They’ve been there before. They’ve flown through that situation countless times. They recognize situations more quickly and know instinctively how to react. Experience brings a level of competence and confidence that is difficult to learn from a book or simulator.
And the Curse
Yet could it be that experience is also a curse? For example, is it possible we might too quickly assume that past patterns apply to a current situation? Could it be that we discount signals indicating something is different and thus miss a better solution?
Could it be that, with experience, our motivation wanes because the challenges just aren’t there anymore? Could it be that we are tempted to increasingly defend our territory instead of seek out new lands?
The Rookie Mindset
Liz Wiseman suggests in her latest book that learning beats knowing in the new game of work. In Rookie Smarts, she presses the notion that we best serve our careers and organizations when we commit to being perpetual rookies.
How? One idea is to disqualify yourself. This means you should seek out a role that you aren’t completely qualified to do. This could be a new domain, a broader role, or a stretch project. But the point is to force yourself into a zone where you only have a 50%-70% likelihood of success. Harvard researcher David McClelland suggests your motivation is highest in that range.
Of course that advice sounds wonderful, in theory, but mortgage companies like to receive checks each month. Disqualifying ourselves feels risky. I asked Liz about that in a recent discussion. Her response was intriguing.
Could it be that by stretching ourselves into these rookie situations, we actually set ourselves up for future mortgage payments? Sure, there’s some risk today, which is why our motivation peaks. But her point is that by continually learning, we better enable ourselves to be relevant and valuable in the future (as opposed to slowly atrophying in our aging knowledge base).
Since learning about McClelland’s research on motivation a couple years ago, I’ve taken on some engagements that I might normally have declined. In nearly every situation, the results far exceeded my initial expectations and many of those led to new offerings and opportunities. For the record, I’m still more comfortable with a 70% likelihood of success than 50%! But by demonstrating a willingness to stretch, we force ourselves to learn and innovate. And the result can be opportunity.
Eric Hoffer observed that “in times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
Are You The Learner or the Learned?
So, let’s bring this back to the original question: What did you learn last year?
I asked that question to a range of leadership and project management thought leadersto see how they would answer. I encourage you to ask it not only of yourself but also of those around you.
How about this? Please leave a comment below with a specific lesson you learned in the last year. Your response will inspire me and others here to keep learning.
If you struggle to come up with a specific answer for yourself, use the question as a catalyst to make this a year where you’re back in the rookie seat.