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Trial & Error or Tried & “True”? …Or, a Matter of Balance?
Posted on April 13, 2011 | Veronica Adams
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Monkey & camera

Learning through dimonstrazione is the second of Leonardo da Vinci’s lifelong habits advocated by Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. Gelb describes this approach as “a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.” 

The leaders in the 2009 IBM CEO study who successfully managed innovative resurgences in their organizations urge other leaders to increase their comfort with ambiguity, ongoing experimentation, and taking "calculated risks." Fostering organizational cultures that encourage questioning and the challenging of assumptions and that continuously solicit new and original ideas leads directly to experimentation, which involves exploring lesser known paths. Not all of these paths will necessarily lead to success.

Is there such a thing as "a mistake"?
Some say, "No," that “there are no mistakes.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Experience never errs; it is only your judgment that errs in promising itself results as not caused by your experiments.”  The maestro certainly had his share of failures. Yet, while he experienced tremendous adversity which resulted in periods of self-doubt, he never gave up. Gelb cites studies by Dr. Martin Seligman that find career success is directly linked with resilience in the face of adversity, and that this hardiness goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to make and learn from mistakes. Gelb and Seligman assert that awareness, a sense of humor, and deep contemplation help us overcome adversity, just as they did for da Vinci.

Following my own instincts, learning through experience, and sometimes going "by the seat of my pants” is what I’ve done much of my life. However, I would not be honest if I didn’t share that I have mixed feelings about this approach and that I don’t think that it is always the smartest route. Some who know me well as the ardent follower of my own drummer might be surprised to hear me say this. And so, I've struggled more with this post than with others as I've sorted this through to find resolution, as you will read further down.

Is there a generational divide when it comes to learning by doing versus learning from elders?
I'm not so sure there is. 
There has been considerable discussion in the training and development field about experiential learning as the preferred learning style of much of the Millennial Generation. I recommend a particularly well-written blog piece on this topic: Do Millennials Think That They Can't Learn From Boomers? The Surprising Truth. The article asserts that Gen Y'rs do look to their elders to help them to learn some of the more nuanced areas of knowledge which generally come through experience, such as how to read people, how to negotiate, etc.

And while Millennials prefer learning many new skills by doing, they also want mentors who will give them immediate feedback and who solicit their ideas for ways to enhance the learning process. The latter helps them to engage more enthusiastically, draws on their considerable creative thinking abilities, and will likely yield valuable improvements. I believe that most adults of any age would prefer this style of learning, given the option. Unfortunately, there was less choice offered in how previous generations were educated and trained. Hopefully, the learning-style preferences of this sizeable younger generation will serve to create changes in training delivery that will benefit all. 

Both/and: Trial, Error & Mentors Horsehead yin-yang
It seems to me that, as with so many other things in life, the key may be to find the right balance: to seek out opportunities to learn by doing and to find wise mentors. The last words of the Buddha were said to have been, “Be a lamp unto your selves.” In other words, listen to what wise teachers have to share, and read the great books, but don’t accept everything they have to say without question. We need to process their teachings through the illumination of our own reasoning and experience, so that they become part of our own knowledge base, instead of someone else’s.

Unfortunately, those who didn't have good mentors when they were young and necessarily became self-reliant don't always realize that they would benefit from wise champions, and therefore don't seek them out. But I believe we would all do well to find caring mentors who encourage us to imagine, create, and experiment while also sharing enough of their own experience with us so that when we fail, we don’t fall too hard or precipitously. 

Most of the stand-out leaders in the IBM study said that mentoring is the style of leadership toward which they have been shifting, as opposed to that of command-and-control. The "persuade and influence" approach they endorse permits leaders to step back and encourage experiential learning and some risk-taking, while also providing a sounding board and support in thinking through ideas. I believe that it is this style of leadership that will fill organizations with the critical and creative thinkers who will themselves lead.

The next post will contain a few exercises from Gelb’s book that will help us to  explore the role experiential learning has played in our own lives and how we feel about (gulp!) "mistakes" we have made.

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