The perils of past experience

A picture of the Super Moon in the night sky November 2016

How much does our past experience influence our future perspective?

Past experience can be a good friend; it helps build our confidence, reassures us we can adapt under different circumstances and helps give us a sense of progress. All good stuff I might argue. Recently, I witnessed past experience being used as a weapon, a means to ungraciously dismiss another point of view.  By reeling off their years of experience in some significant institutions the person concerned came across as asserting an ‘absolute rightness.’ It was very public and quite uncomfortable.

Why has this preoccupied me? Partly, because it was a good example that while constructive criticism can be helpful when the feedback is not well framed it can be very unproductive. However, I have chosen to write about it mainly because it made me think about our relationship to our past experience.

Often when we are looking for a trusted adviser their past experience is probably one of the first things we consider. It is a useful indicator of whether they might understand what we are trying to deal with and offer something helpful.

But this incident made me wonder about the possibility that our past experience, as it accumulates, also stops us learning. We perhaps rely too heavily on it and start to operate on the basis that we have all the experience we need to be able to tell others what to think and do. In this case our past experience blinkers us to other ways of thinking; perhaps creating a danger that we start to believe our own reviews!

Apparently this is known as the Einstellung Effect and there is plenty of research on it that shows that our experience can help us find solutions, but they are not always the best solutions because we can’t see the alternatives.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.      Shunryu Suzuki

So, how can we keep in touch with our old friend but not let it dominate our thinking?

Check your motives

Don’t be seduced by your own expertise! Are you genuinely adding something useful from your past experience or are you massaging your own ego? When I share my experience, which I recognise I do quite a lot, I try and present it as a ‘take or leave it’ insight rather than a command. After all plenty of experts have been shown to be wrong over time!

Letting go

This is also linked to the point about ego. Maybe you don’t always have to assert your credentials to be able to offer something. Sometimes unlearning and letting go of past experience can be valuable too.

Be reflective

The capacity to reflect is a valuable gift and is not something that comes naturally to all of us. There are a range of different approaches that can help. I have a colleagues who keep journals, have professional supervision support, join professional practice groups, take part in action learning sets and so on. I blog, have a visual journal and use my photography.

This can also have a powerful impact on our ability to learn new things. A Harvard study recently showed that those who take part in a dual-process of learning and ‘deliberately focusing on thinking about what one has been doing’ improved their score in both lab and real-world experiments by nearly 23% over those who don’t.

Think about relevance

Sometimes we will throw any old past experience at something just to see what sticks, whether it is appropriate or not. The point about past experience is exactly that – it comes from another time and context. That does not mean it automatically translates into a new context. I often hear the refrain of we tried that before and it didn’t work, I don’t often hear, “let’s have another look at that, what was going on at the time, maybe now is a better time to try it…”

Play and experiment – let your mind wander

Seriously, take yourself off and really let your mind wander. Not just a five minute thing, take some proper time out and let your mind go wherever it wants to. Changing environments, going for a walk, going somewhere you have never been before can all help to dislodge your thinking and feelings.

Take yourself off auto pilot and try and be a beginner again

I still prepare, no I mean I really prepare for things. Even if I am using approaches I have used before I try and put myself in the shoes of those I am working with who may not have encountered the approach before. Sometimes time is against me but I try.

I also quite often try something new. At the moment I am learning some Graphic Design software. It is not easy and I often find it frustrating that I can’t just step in and use it like I can with other software I know well. This is a good thing, a reminder of being a beginner again, slowing down and having to think.