The Gist

  • Ups and downs. Every executive in the leadership class had experienced both big successes and major setbacks.
  • Gullies and Mountains. Although difficult times can be discouraging, they often precede great achievements.
  • Learning from experience. It's essential to engage in truth-seeking to understand controllable factors, avoid playing the blame game, and make better decisions in the future.

Thirty executives sat in the leadership class charting our failures. We drew a line representing “okay” across the paper’s middle. Then, starting with our first job, we sketched our experience timeline. Above the line were happy events and below the line were the disappointments. Then we shared.

Two things we learned:

  • Everyone experienced big ups and downs.
  • Deep gullies were usually followed by high mountains.

Everyone Experiences Big Ups and Downs

None of us escapes bad times, despite the happy, skippy, self-promotional posts we see on social media. Everyone in the class had drawn more than one episode below the “okay” line. During the discussion, we learned that each of us had endured failure, being fired, laid off, marginalized or demoted. We’d had horrible bosses and worked under high stress. One of my career gullies was being removed from the leadership of a cherished, high-profile project. Even though I was still sad about this experience, it was an unexpected relief to see how in this room of businesspeople with varying backgrounds, our charts were so similar that they could have been interchangeable.

Related Article: 3 Customer Experience Detours That Led to Success

Deep Gullies Were Usually Followed by High Mountains

I was excited to see this common pattern. Big leaps weren’t always preceded by intense difficulty and sometimes there was a time lag. But the pattern was repeated so often that it caused me to reframe the role of my mistakes and disappointments.

Of course, I knew that it’s impossible to keep everything above the “okay” line all the time, yet this exercise caused me to question the wisdom of even trying to do so. Variability is, after all, part of the natural order of things. Natural systems fail in stasis. A healthy human heart beats with slight irregularity. Our DNA contains an average of 150 mutations from what our parents bequeathed us.

Experimentation, whether purposeful and safe, or unexpected and risky is how nature and all of us discover breakthroughs and adapt to constant change. Organizations, careers and lives calcify unless occasionally shaken up. Perhaps trying to constantly optimize for above-the-line outcomes robs us of something essential — the opportunity to experiment and learn.

Related Article: Customer Experience Conundrum: Fix Bad Experiences or Make Good Ones Better?

How to Learn From Experience

In the discussion following the experience timeline exercise, my classmates and I explored the strategies leading to our high career mountains. Learning from difficult experiences was a common theme.

Learning Opportunities

In her book Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke, former professional poker player and author, talks about how to learn from experience. She points out the risk of succumbing to hindsight bias, one of several common mental biases that inhibit learning. Hindsight bias is the universal human tendency to assume that once an outcome is known that it was inevitable and, therefore, could have been controlled “if only we knew.” But no outcome in a complex world is ever inevitable. Each situation, both gullies and mountains, contains controllable elements that we can master with better intelligence and skill but also factors that are just plain luck, produced by hidden information and random events.

Hindsight bias motivates us to quickly hammer down the causes of whatever just happened, and our intuition is often wrong. Instead, Duke recommends truth-seeking. Truth-seeking, as she describes it, is the sincere, open-minded effort to first determine which factors were under our control and which were not and then to honestly admit to our role in the controllable factors. Truth-seeking is essentially following the often-quoted plea for the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Duke says that to learn from experience and make better decisions in the future, we must accept uncertainty and avoid jumping to conclusions. Not only is it pointless to complain and ruminate about uncontrollable factors, those bits of hidden information and random events in every situation guarantees there is always a chance you are wrong. Duke suggests fielding your views as a bet, asking how much would you bet that the reasons you’ve attributed to an outcome are correct? Are you 80% certain? 40%? She says, “Thinking in bets triggers a more open-minded exploration of alternative hypotheses.” An open mind increases the probability you’ll discover the truth and learn more from your experience.

'Our CFO Doesn't Understand Marketing'

But even when we try to accurately distinguish between "controllables" and "uncontrollables," our desire to make ourselves look good gets in our way. We naturally tend to take too much credit for the mountains in our timeline (while downplaying the role of others and luck) and to play the blame-game when we hit gullies. Duke says, “When we have a good outcome, it cues the routine of crediting the result to our awesome decision-making … A bad outcome cues the routine of off-loading responsibility for the result.” Gullies tend to send us careening down a path to blame others (“our department had layoffs because the CFO doesn’t understand marketing”) or on situational causes (“our campaign failed because the new product launch was late”).

Courageously seeking the truth about our role in a career gully can expose the sometimes-difficult realities, which in turn, helps us make better decisions in the future. When I lost my cherished project leadership role, I secretly blamed one of my colleagues. Later I learned the reason I was set aside was that I had failed to build bridges with a key technical team. Accepting this hard truth motivated me in future leadership roles to share more power with key stakeholders, a practice that contributed to some nice mountains on my experience timeline.

Gullies Can Lead to High Mountains, if You Let Them

Now, when something awful happens to me, I still bubble up with anxiety, sadness or anger, but it helps to remember that gullies occur in everyone’s lives (pain is inevitable) and yet they can signal a healthy system, opening the door to vitality, opportunity, learning, and often, some high mountains.

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