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The Three Ways to Learn Things

The Three Ways to Learn Things

- by Bryan Emmerson -

One of the conclusions that I have made over the years is that there is a high correlation between management skills and parenting skills. I need to be careful where I say this and in what context because I am not implying that employees are like children. Rather that there is a high degree of correlation in the application of leadership to both groups.

One example of this is that I believe there are three ways to learn things:  the Easy Way, the Hard Way, and the Really Hard Way. The Easy Way is to either listen to the wisdom of those that have gone before or watch the mistakes of others and learn from them. My attitude growing up was, “I’m going to make enough of my own mistakes, I don’t have to make yours.” This sounds pretty straightforward. In fact most of us would wish this kind of learning on ourselves and everybody we know. After all, mistakes are painful and/or embarrassing so if we can avoid them, why not? And most of us do learn some things the Easy Way.  Unfortunately we all have to learn some things the Hard Way - making a mistake and then realizing and learning from our mistake.

What we really want to do is avoid learning what I call the Really Hard Way.  The Really Hard Way to learn something is when the consequences are permanent and life-changing. We all have had situations where someone we know has married the wrong person or experienced an unwanted pregnancy. I had a friend in high school that was in a car accident paralyzing him from the waist down. Another friend was in a car accident and has permanent scarring on her face. An example a lot closer to home was when I was show boating on the basketball court when I was 16 years old. Two knee surgeries and over four decades later I bear the consequence of that decision.

When my son was little, we would take walks together. I remember a time when he was about four or five years old and he was jumping and skipping beside me. When I noticed the sidewalk up ahead was uneven, I pointed out the danger but did not take his hand. He ignored my warning, and predictably, his toe caught the edge and he fell down skinning his knee. He wasn’t badly hurt, and he tried to be a "tough guy" in front of his dad as a tear rolled down his cheek. I use this as a teaching opportunity as to the benefits of listening well. There was another time when he was running out into the street and I shouted for him to stop. He immediately stopped just as a car raced by. These are two extreme examples where in one case I deliberately allowed him to be hurt to teach him and the other not allowing him to be hurt because the consequences would be too great. This is a distinction that millions of parents make every day. It’s easy when the line delineating what’s too far is pretty straightforward. It gets a lot harder when they are 19 years old; it’s also harder with employees.

I believe it’s helpful to be mindful of two things. First, we are all learners as we go through life. Sometimes, “stuff happens”.  Circumstances fall in our lap over which we have no control. There are times, however, where we do have a choice. If we make a conscious effort to learn things the Easy Way whenever possible, our journey becomes much more pleasant.

Secondly, when we find ourselves in the position of authority (supervisor, parent, mentor, etc.).  The choice here is a little different. Do we force our knowledge on the other or let them learn the hard way? This is where judgment comes into play. And it’s hard! It’s hard to let somebody skin their proverbial knees when we could have prevented it even though we know that the experience of doing so may be the best for them.

So how do we know? To this I have two observations. First, no one strikes the right balance every time. That is, it takes practise to know when to let someone fail and when to throw them a lifeline.  And second, if trying to strike the right balance is front of mind, your frequency of doing so will continue to improve.

Failure is defeat only when we cannot or refuse to get back up.  It is part of learning and as John Maxwell put it, we need to fail forward.  While we all need to have the freedom to fail and learn the Hard Way, I recommend surrounding oneself with people to help prevent us from learning the Really Hard Way.

I hope this has been helpful, and remember …

Your success matters!

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