STORIES THAT LIE When Experience Becomes an All-Too-Simple Narrative
First, experiences quickly become stories. People are able to effortlessly generate narratives based on their observations, often linking their interpretations to their previous experiences, beliefs, and knowledge.
Second, the chronology of events often leads people to perceive cause-and-effect relationships.
Third, people can easily use a perceived story to generate a prediction of what will happen next.
Stories help us understand our experience. They provide a way to attach meaning to complicated yet important events that affect our lives. They allow us to create order out of chaos.
Stories help us remember our experience. Memorizing a list of a dozen words or concepts and remembering their order sometime later would be difficult. But if we connect them through a unifying story, they are easier to recall when needed.
Stories help us communicate our experience. We can convey them easily to others, making sure that the learning becomes collective. We can also learn from others’ experience through their stories.
Great. What can go wrong?
Unfortunately, our storytelling proclivity can also create serious problems. If our perception of events is shaped by filters, distortions, missing details, and irrelevant information, then the stories we generate would be too simplistic and unrealistic to capture the nuances of the actual situation—or to prepare us adequately for the future. Such misleading stories, however, may still be influential and durable. In Human, All Too Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues that “partial knowledge is more often victorious than full knowledge: it conceives things as simpler than they are and therefore makes its opinion easier to grasp and more persuasive.”
The nature of history itself makes partial knowledge inevitable. When we learn from history, we get to observe the unfolding of just one of many possible outcomes. And what occurred might not even be the most probable version. When it comes to learning from history, the learning environment is, by definition, wicked. In Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer, sociologist Duncan Watts warns that “when we look to the past, we see only the things that happened—not all the things that might have happened but didn’t—and as a result, our commonsense explanations often mistake for cause and effect what is really just a sequence of events.”
What we see isn’t necessarily all there is.
LOST INSIGHTS When Experience Limits Creative Potential
Google’s search engine lets us find exactly what we are looking for on the web in a matter of seconds. From this simple yet incredibly powerful service, Google has expanded into offering a wide variety of essential online services, from email and storage space in the cloud to marketing and advertising tools, document creation and sharing, mapping tools for travelers, and much more. And the list goes on…
The modern PC is indispensable and ubiquitous. The graphical user interface, with its intuitive icons, its easy navigation via clicks and links, and the mouse or trackpad that puts it all within easy fingertip reach, can be mastered by anyone from a small child to a retiree. Coupled with the Internet, the PC makes accessible a world of communication, information, entertainment, and experience that includes music, imagery, literature, art, video, science, and personal connections, redefining how people around the world work, play, and communicate. And the list goes on…
All these reasons feel obvious given our experience with these ideas. They emerge without effort. In fact, this is true for any popular and successful idea. We can often understand, analyze, explain, and communicate creative success stories with relative ease, and so, we should strive to learn from them.
Great! What can go wrong?
Unfortunately, such experience with innovative ideas ends up distorting our intuitions about creativity, thereby hurting our own creative potential.
To find out how this happens, travel back to a time when that experience didn’t exist, to the moment when each of these ideas had been conceived but had not yet revealed its prominence. And try to imagine what most experienced professionals in the domain would have felt when they first heard about the idea. Surely, if multiple reasons for the popularity and success of an idea are that obvious to us now, many of these same reasons ought to have been immediately evident to such experts. Their experience should have helped them better foresee the eventual outcome, make better decisions, and profit.
Whatever the idea you were thinking of at the beginning of this chapter, the more innovative and creative it was, the more likely that it clashed with people’s experience in that field. And this clash ensured that the idea was rejected or ignored by many experts in the field, right before the moment it hit big.
The “overnight success” becomes legendary—the preceding months or years of painstaking collaboration, experimental stumbling, failure, and redesign tend to be hidden from view. As a result, we often fail to appreciate that creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship are more complex and unpredictable than they seem to be. This, in turn, adversely affects the way we design our innovative processes in schools, offices, and social lives, which can perpetually limit our creativity.
We are worse judges but better creators of ideas than our experience suggests. Once we recognize the different ways experience can get in the way of recognizing opportunities and generating ideas, we can hope to devise mechanisms to harness its powers rather than fall into its traps.
BLINDED TO RISK When Experience Conceals Danger
IMAGINE YOU ARE A DINOSAUR.
A Velociraptor, a Sauroposeidon, a Triceratops, a Stegosaurus, or a Tyrannosaurus rex, if you wish. Try and feel it in your bones.
You live a normal life—dodging risks, feeding, reproducing. Your experience has taught you well how to survive. You innately remember the places where easily accessible food can be found. You have developed a sense as to whether a certain area would be dangerous for your life at a given time. In fact, experience has been your ally for ages. It’s in your DNA. Most of your instincts are the products of the collective experience of your whole species. For millions of years, your ancestors have adapted to the environment, which helps your survival.
But one day, you wake up from your sleep and something feels off. The environment around you is changing too rapidly for you to adapt. Your experience did not warn you that such a change could be possible. Nothing that you or your ancestors have learned seems to be effective in this new setting. The skills required are not in your DNA. Soon, life gets so difficult that there’s no way to survive. You die, along with the rest of your species and many others. You did nothing to cause this situation. Nor was there a way for you to foresee or prevent it.
Rest in peace.
This is based on a true story from roughly sixty-six million years ago, when scientists believe a massive asteroid impact devastated the ecosystem of planet earth. Many victims died right after the blast, while others suffered for a while as a result of cataclysmic changes in the environment before perishing forever. From the perspective of dinosaurs and many other forms of life that existed back then, we are living in a postapocalyptic world.1
We know that disasters of various kinds and scales have happened and will continue to happen to us, as a species, as a nation, as organizations, and as individuals. To better understand, predict, and then deal with the disasters that await us, we’ll need all the help we can get. Like dinosaurs, we humans also learn from and trust our experience. We record the past and observe the present. These should help us to sense what dangers may lie ahead and to cope with them as effectively as possible.
Great. What can go wrong?
Unfortunately, experience is not a reliable teacher when it comes to surviving disasters. Relying strictly on what we have learned from experience can make us vulnerable to certain catastrophic events by hiding crucial information from us while feeding us irrelevant details. It can render us as helpless as the dinosaurs were. Worse, unlike the dinosaurs, we may even be exposed to disasters that we ourselves have instigated. Only by acknowledging the various filters and distortions in our experience can we hope to identify potential disasters and then make informed and timely decisions about how to tackle them.
A main problem is that many really big unprecedented events with fatally destructive consequences are deceptively missing from our experience. And such looming disasters often come with few or no recognizable warning signs.
In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes how such rare yet impactful episodes develop—typically not in a simple, linear fashion, which can allow people to learn to manage them over time, but rather by appearing dormant or progressing very slowly until suddenly there is, in effect, an “explosion” with unexpected outcomes and irreparable consequences. The slippery slope leading to such disasters can be quite flat and easy to get used to. And the tranquil and seemingly familiar present becomes a mere distraction from imminent destruction, leaving the victims tragically unprepared.
So the mere fact that one may have observed only white swans in the past doesn’t mean that the next one would definitely not be black. Also, experience not only fails to inform us about the existence of rare events, but about their impact as well. When it comes to unprecedented disasters, reliance on experience leaves us comfortably asleep at the wheel.
MAGIC BULLETS When Experience Feeds Illusory Secrets of Success
WAKE UP EARLY.
Drink water before breakfast.
Put first things first.
Say no to almost everything.
Know when to stay and when to leave.
Would you like to be successful in life? If you do, you’d better follow these suggestions. They are a selection of principles based on analyses of what successful people have in common. They have been tried and confirmed by the best of the best. Learn from their experience.
Great. What can go wrong?
As we work to achieve our goals, we may seek to learn from those who have already been successful. And while one particular case may be a coincidence, it would be useful to know what multiple achievements have in common. Sounds reasonable.
Yet focusing only on successes can distract us with irrelevant details, while hiding important facts. The resulting lessons can be useless and sometimes even work against our goals. Success, by itself, is not a reliable teacher.
Should we instead stick to learning from failures? Perhaps we can avoid future mistakes through a deep dive into what went wrong. And while one particular case may be an accident, it would be useful to know what multiple mishaps have in common. Sounds reasonable.
Yet focusing only on failures can also distract us with irrelevant details, while hiding important facts. The resulting lessons can be useless and sometimes even work against our goals. Failure, by itself, is not a reliable teacher either.
Experience can be surprisingly misleading if we attempt to learn from either success or failure. A better strategy is to consider both successes and failures, cautiously exploring what may be causing their difference. Yet this approach is not straightforward, it may not feel natural, and we may not like what we end up learning.
Instead of trying to confirm that the lessons from successes are reliable, let’s consider how they can be deceptive.
The first issue is accuracy. What if some lessons from success are not actually real to begin with? Winners usually get to write the stories of how they achieved what they did, or to narrate their experience to others who eagerly report what they say. This raises the possibility that some stories get embellished along the way.
The stories of many successful organizations, for example, often involve conflicting accounts with widely varying interpretations of events offered by different stakeholders, including cofounders who built the company together. Even when certain prominent cases are explored in detail through blockbusters like The Social Network, the end results may still contain dramatizations, subjective evaluations, and editorial liberties.
Another detail to consider when learning from success is the issue of selection. What if failures get systematically filtered out of experience, leading to what statisticians call a selection bias?
In Success and Luck, economist Robert H. Frank observes how high achievers in a wide variety of domains tend to be talented and hardworking. These “survivors” give observers—including themselves—a sense of meritocracy in action. Unfortunately, however, while talent and hard work are often necessary for success, they may not be sufficient. After all, many of those who don’t succeed in many settings may also be talented and hardworking.
The selection filter leads to the so-called survivorship bias. Operating outside our control, it creates a false sense regarding the guaranteed effectiveness of specific actions when trying to achieve success. What was it that the less successful did or failed to do? Did they not wake up early? Did they not drink water at the right time? Did they not exercise? Are these indicators of some underlying incompetence? Maybe… but it’s more likely that scores of people also did the “right” things yet failed anyway.9
Especially in domains where failures greatly outnumber successes, it is unlikely that those who failed did not think of taking advantage of solutions available to them. Hence, the more simplistic a lesson from success, the more it assumes that those who didn’t succeed are either naïve or unintelligent. This is disrespectful to many who strive to do their best but fail for all sorts of unforeseeable and circumstantial reasons.
CONCLUSION The Wisdom of the Experience Coach
We can take charge of and actively shape our learning. We have the cognitive resources to look beyond experience and further enrich our understanding of the world we live in. By recognizing how our experience molds our minds, we can learn appropriately from its lessons and unlearn, relearn, improve, or even ignore them, depending on our personal and collective objectives. We can also design methods and mechanisms that render our learning environments kinder and our experience more reliable.
A first step in this quest is to acknowledge that experience is often systematically filtered. It can simultaneously feature missing details and irrelevant information, without our noticing. Sometimes these filters are beyond our control. For example, many failures within a given process may simply be unobservable, while one can readily observe successes and survivors. But some distortions are due to how we gather, consider, and remember information. For example, we may be tempted to overgeneralize from our limited personal experience.
Especially when the stakes are high, it becomes important to ask two questions about our experience: What’s missing? What’s irrelevant? The answers to these questions can then gradually help us develop a radar that reminds us to take the lessons of experience as signals to reflect on and test further rather than as definitive verdicts.
While this approach is designed to enrich the personal lessons from experience, there’s no doubt that applying it to one’s own decisions can be counterintuitive and difficult. Here is where the perspective of an outsider can be valuable.
We are usually much better advisers to others than to ourselves. We can quickly and easily see problems in people that we observe and propose ways to solve them. But we can struggle to recognize and manage the same issues when we ourselves suffer from them.
Unlike professional athletes, however, most of us don’t have coaches to view us from outside, providing constant and reliable feedback about our objectives, perceptions, judgments, and important decisions. Our parents, teachers, friends, and partners may end up spontaneously playing that role. But, like most people, they may simply be unaware of the various illusions of experience.
Instead, is it possible to specifically envision an experience coach, who acknowledges and warns us about the potential flaws in its lessons? What would be the main signals that such an adviser would consider when providing feedback about the way one learns from experience and the resulting lessons?
EXPERIENCE CAN INDEED be a reliable teacher, a dear friend, and a crucial ally. It’s a major source of information. Its lessons help us form our preferences and perceptions. That’s why it’s vital to look at it and the environment in which it’s obtained with a critical eye.
At an organizational level, one could envision experience coaches working to identify problems with learning environments across different functions and then devising better mechanisms for learning and decision-making accordingly. Viewing the issues from outside would make it easier to identify possible symptoms without falling prey to possible deceptions. In this book, we have attempted to fill the role of such coaches, offering as many solutions as possible to the problems we’ve diagnosed and analyzed.
At a personal level, one may need to become one’s own experience coach. That can feel quite uncomfortable. With this book, we hope to provide the necessary motivation and means to look at the lessons of experience from the outside, and then to offer some practical ideas for dealing with the implications.