By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
— Mark Twain
I’m not even going to ask you whether you’ve had this experience because I know you have.
You get into a situation that you think you know how to handle, you take an action, it doesn’t work. In an instant you smack yourself in the forehead uttering the epithet, “I know better than that!”, an act of total self recrimination.
Then within a relatively short period of time a similar situation occurs, you blow it again, following the same pattern only this time you add, “When will you ever learn?”, as you berate yourself without recognizing that what you have just said is completely ironic because seconds before you accused yourself of knowing better than that!
I told you I wasn’t going to ask you whether you’ve had this happen because I know you have, we all have, myself included.
A couple of things make this one of life’s more frustrating experiences; one, it’s not just the failure to handle the situation that hurts, it’s the self punishment we dole out, and we are brutal about it. Second, the failure to learn from the initial experience is also humiliating and attacks our self confidence, often so badly that in the future when we see the situation coming again we run the other way, or some version thereof.
Let’s step back for a moment and establish the value of this discourse. You are a manager or business owner. On a daily basis you are faced with challenges, most often in the form of people, employees, customers, vendors and others.
Most of these challenges you handle well; good, that’s what you get paid for or as an owner how you go about growing your business. Then there are the the situations like I described earlier. Without question these situations handled unsuccessfully a number of times begin the describe the limits of your ability to progress as a manager or as a business owner to build and grow your business.
One thing I have observed in both myself and others is that in life I will usually choose to avoid or rationalize situations where my experience tells me I am not going to succeed. I’d ask you to be honest with yourself and do a quick inventory. “What or who” do you knowingly avoid due to a personal history of not interacting or handling them well, at least well according to you. Then, and here it becomes somewhat painful, ask your self what the cost is to you of the avoidance pattern you have developed?
So how can these patterns be changed? Step one, admit to yourself what specific situations are yours to account for. Step two commit to learning how to handle these situations. (See the thing is, what you never recognized when you scolded yourself for knowing better is that you didn’t in fact know better. Get it? If you did know better, then how come you didn’t handle things well in the first place? What? Are you just lazy, not as smart as you think you are, careless? Hardly! Nope, none of these, you are in fact normal and you made normal people mistakes.) Normal people observe life through the lens of their past experience. If something or someone they/you encounter looks like someone or something they/you have previously encountered they/you assume that they/you know how to handle it or them.
This may be a bit hard to follow but the inference is that all our actions in present time are heavily influenced by our past experiences. We mistake our memory of past experiences for “Knowing What to Do.” Put very directly, we are using old memories, not knowledge, to engage current circumstances.
The really nasty trick is that there are enough “Almost Like Our Past Experiences” that we get away with using old memories (what we know) until we run into a “Looks the Same to Me” which really isn’t and then we fall on our face and confusion begins to set in.
And the biggest goblin isn’t the process I am describing, it is how we feel (very uncomfortable) when our past experience is not a match for life in the moment. Feeling uncomfortable has become for us in the modern world the single most important signal to us that something is dangerous, very wrong, to be avoided, an opportunity to fail.
Honestly, there is no hope of learning how to handle the past failures until we master our aversion to emotional discomfort. If you get this, it allows you to move to the next level in the game of life. “Those who can tolerate the greatest amount of emotional discomfort stand to learn how to develop power in the face of ambiguity. What matters most in life is ambiguous. Real power and ambiguity are inseparable.”
Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.