That’ll Learn You

‘The endless pursuit of excellence’ is something you hear quite a lot in company manifestos. I always think this sounds pretty stupid because nobody would write ‘We strive for mediocrity’ and therefore it doesn’t really need saying. In a job interview or on a CV, “I’m punctual and hard-working”, “No! You don’t say.”

That’s my first gripe. Forging on. My topic today is about learning one’s lesson. This is another area where people trot out the same lines without really thinking them through. “We, at [insert large global company] learn from our mistakes. It’s totally OK to make a mistake as long as you learn from it and don’t do it again.” Pah! That’s what I say. Why? Because most of us don’t learn from most of our mistakes. Let me explain.

Sure, there are massive mistakes that result in near-death experiences, and the like, where we say to ourselves “Yeah, really shouldn’t jump through fiery hoops, naked, wearing a hat made entirely of fireworks. Don’t do that again.” But most of the time we are creatures of habit. ‘Mistakes’ aren’t actually mistakes, they’re just parts of us. That’s not to say that we can’t change but it takes a lot of conscious effort and practice to do so, not just making one ‘mistake’ and then miraculously changing our way of doing things.

Take being late. I’m a serial offender. I don’t mean to be. I don’t want to piss anyone off. I’m just late quite a bit of the time (by the way we’re actually optimists and hugely successful). Every time I’m late, I think to myself that I probably should try to be on time in future and maybe the next time I will be, but after that, all bets are off.

Forgetting things. How many times have you forgotten something important? Phone, wallet, keys etc. Even if you’ve forgotten one thing, I bet you’ve not learnt your lesson and have, on another occasion, forgotten something else, even though you know it’s bad to forget things and it results in annoying things happening, like being locked out of your house, not being about to pay for stuff etc. But we still do it.

What’s my point? That, dear reader, is a good question. My point is that we’re human. We are extremely fallible, vulnerable, deeply flawed creatures. If one takes the ‘learn one’s lesson and never do it again’ lesson to its furthest conclusion, then logically, by the age of about 10 we should essentially be perfect. Late for Kindergarten once? Next time and every time after that – on time. Forgot to bring your lego model into school age 6? Never again for me! Not I! I’ll never forget anything EVER again. Upset best friend by eating their last piece of chocolate cake at their 8th birthday? I shall not make another social faux pas as long as I breathe.

What utter nonsense. Of course that isn’t how it works. We and the companies we work for shouldn’t even begin to pretend that it is. Does it mean we can’t try to improve and form better habits? Of course not. It’s just a ridiculously unachievable tenet with which we bash ourselves on a more-or-less daily basis.

What’s the alternative? Well, for me it’s Kaizen. What is Kaizen? I’m glad you asked. Kaizen is the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement. I don’t take it as the ‘striving for excellence’ thing that companies spout but rather the idea that as people we try to be just a little bit better today than we were yesterday. That’s it. Forget the nonsense about learning from all our mistakes. Just try to be a bit better each time you do something (like live through a day). The way I try to do this is to keep a Kaizen diary (which, amusingly I don’t fill out every day). Every time I do something a bit better, I note it down. There’s no dates or goals. I just take a note of something I did that day that I think has made me a better person. Examples include ‘went for run in the cold’ (when I wasn’t feeling it), ‘helped man with bike’ (he was struggling up some stairs). It isn’t much and it isn’t lofty, but I think that the sum total will be a better person and hopefully a better universe (ok, that’s lofty).

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