Learning from our past

A time of change pushes us to take decisions without knowing how things are going to turn out.

One way to get better at this is to learn from our past — and especially to learn from a time when things didn’t turn out in the way we wanted.

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

He said:

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

In a time of change, this attitude will be extremely useful.

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

Then answer four questions:

  1. What happened: What choice did I make? What did I expect to happen? What did happen?
  2. What story did I tell myself about this at the time: did I judge it as a ‘failure’? And if so, what other interpretations are possible?
  3. What other actions might I have taken — to ignore, leave, fix, improve, or transform the situation? Or to learn from the situation?
  4. Knowing all this, would I still make the same choice again?

To get the maximum benefit from this post, answer these questions before you read on.


What was your answer to the final question?

If you decided that you would make the same choice again then you know from experience that you can trust the choices you make now, even if things turn out differently from how you expect.

And if you decided you would make a different choice then you can still trust the choice you make today because you know that even if things don’t turn out in the way you expect, you will learn from the experience.

In this time of massive change, many things are not going to turn out the way we expect. We have to get used to that.

This means the most important thing is no longer to ‘get it right’. That is now impossible.

The most important thing now is to learn to let go of our assumptions, find the opportunities in any situation, manage our upsides and downsides and make the best choice we can, and then inspire ourselves and others to make it happen — knowing that we won’t always get it right but we can always learn from our experiences and move forward. 

The most important thing now is learn to use change to become stronger and become antifragile. And this is a skill we can all learn.

Over the next six months, is it going to become more important or less important for you to be able to take decisions without knowing how things are going to turn out? What are you doing to prepare for that?


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

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(And remember: you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming, you also need to practice.)


Photo By Markus Binzegger via StockPholio.net

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