Learning from our past

A man sits at a table that is decorated as a clock

A time of change pushes us to take decisions without knowing how things are going to turn out. If we find this difficult, we can easily get stuck.

There are several approaches that can help us to get better at making choices under uncertainty. One of these is to learn from our past — especially from a time when things didn’t turn out the way we wanted.

Before Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb he tried thousands of approaches that didn’t work. He saw these attempts not as ‘failures’ but as  successful steps towards getting the outcome he wanted:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This attitude will be extremely useful in a time of change.

To apply this wisdom in your life, first think back to a time when you made a decision that didn’t turn out the way you wanted.

Then ask yourself five questions:

  1. What was the choice I made? What did I expect to happen? What did happen?
  2. What lesson did I teach myself at the time: did I see it as a ‘failure’? As something else?
  3. Was this a mis-blink? What alternative lessons or interpretations are also possible?
  4. What other opportunities might I have had, to ignore, leave, fix, improve, or transform the situation?
  5. Knowing all this, would I still make the same decision?

If you want to get the maximum benefit, answer these questions before you read on.

If you decide that you would make the same decision again then you know that you can trust the choices you make, even if things don’t turn out the way you expect this time either.

And if you decide you would make a different choice then you can still trust the choice you make today, because even if it doesn’t turn out the way you want it to, you will again be able to learn from the experience.

In a time of massive change, many things are not going to turn out the way we expect. So the important thing is not to get it right every time. The important thing is to increase our ability to make the best choices we can, even when the outcomes are uncertain, and to keep moving.

This is a skill we can learn — if we practice.

Think of a time when you made an important decision. Did you have lots of information to help you predict how things would turn out or were you able to make that decision under uncertainty? In the future, do you expect your need to take decisions under uncertainty to become smaller or greater? What do you intend to do to prepare for that?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By Markus Binzegger via StockPholio.net

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