The Myth of Experience.

April 26, 2023

The Myth of Experience.

May 29, 2023

We tend to consider experience our best teacher because it helps our pattern recognition and intuition. However, sometimes experience stands in our way.

I’ve just finished reading "The Myth of Experience: Why We Learn the Wrong Lessons and Ways to Correct Them." The book dives into research that has shown that people get reliably better with experience in certain tasks, while in others, they don’t get better and yet become more confident. That second situation can be a lethal combination.

As author David Epstein suggested in a review of this book, “In ‘kind learning environments,’ rules are clear, patterns repeat, feedback is quick and accurate, and work next year probably looks like work last year. There, experience generally leads to improved judgment. In ‘wicked learning environments,’ on the other hand, rules might change (if there are any), patterns don’t just repeat, feedback can be delayed or inaccurate, and work next year might not look like work last year. In wicked domains, experience often gives practitioners the feeling of improvement, without the reality.”

Wow, are we living in a kind or a wicked era? In other words, is life less predictable now than it used to be? If so, our past experience might not be as much of a reliable guide as it used to be. In a changeable world, our experience might reinforce the exact wrong lessons.

For example, more than a decade ago, I was asked by the three young Airbnb founders to help them take their tech start-up and turn it into a successful global hospitality brand. I initially applied many of my bricks and mortar boutique hotel rules to this endeavor which slowed our progress because I wasn’t willing to A/B test things (to use some tech lingo). And, some of my knowledge, like how many rooms a maid cleans in an 8-hour shift, was irrelevant.

The authors of “The Myth of Experience” suggest two questions we may need to consider when applying our life lessons to something new:

  • Is there something important missing from my experience that I need to uncover if I hope to fully understand what is happening?
  • What irrelevant details are present in my experience that I need to ignore to avoid being distracted from what is happening?

They also suggest that a new kind of coach may emerge in the workplace, an Experience Coach who acknowledges and warns us about the potential flaw in our lessons (the three cited in the book are availability bias, inappropriate anchors, and flawed convictions).

I know this has been a bit of a geeky post, but I felt it was worth sharing because I often say that wisdom is “metabolized experience that leads to distilled compassion.” This book helped me to see that the metabolizing of experience is more than just making sense of what happened; it’s also essential to understand the context of a situation in which you might apply that experience.

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