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Our experiences make us who we are.
What we learn from our experiences makes us who we are.
In that case, you’ll want to make the most of every lesson life throws at you! Otherwise, you’ll find yourself making the same mistakes over and over.
Over the last several years, I’ve found an approach that helps me get a useful takeaway out of just about any situation I go through. Here’s my strategy for learning from my life experiences.
Why bother to learn from your experiences?
Cherie Carter-Scott said, “There are no mistakes, only lessons.” Do you learn from the lessons your experiences present to you?
This seems like a glaringly obvious question at first. But, how often do you find yourself in the same situation time and time again? Have you ever said, “Ugh, this always happens to me.” Then maybe you’re not learning!
I get it. I do. Sometimes it’s hard to make better choices. It can be challenging to shake those ingrained habits that hold you back. And sometimes it’s just tough to take an honest look at yourself and admit that you’re doing something wrong.
But what’s the cost of not learning from your experiences? You end up stuck. Making the same choices, with the same outcomes, time after time. What’s that saying about the definition of insanity? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way! By learning from your experiences, you will enable yourself to make better choices, and better choices mean positive changes in your life. You will:
- Be happier
- Become more productive
- Have better relationships with your friends and family
Game changer: The after-action report
Ever heard of an after-action report? You have now!
An after-action report, or AAR for short, is basically an analysis of the outcome of a specific event. Think of it sort of like Monday-morning quarterbacking, applied to any real-life situation.
The goal of an AAR is to figure out what worked, what didn’t work, an what could be done better going forward. It’s a problem solving tool to help you learn lessons from your experiences.
Although AARs are widely used by the military, businesses, et cetera, they are actually pretty relevant to everyday life. The secret? A straightforward framework:
- Overview (What happened?)
- Goals and objectives (What was my goal?What did I want to happen?)
- Analysis of the outcomes (Why did it happen that way?)
- Analysis of the performance shown on critical tasks (What was my role in causing the outcome?)
- Summary (Cause and effect)
- Recommendations (What can I do differently next time? What did I do well that I should do again in the future?)
Is that all a bunch of muck? No worries! Let’s break it down.
This is pretty obvious. Simply state the outcome, but include what led up to it.
For example, let’s say I ordered a new pair of jeans online, and ended up regretting it a few hours later.
What happened: “I ordered some jeans online that I don’t really need.”
I pity the fool who stops there!
Dive deeper and look at the chain of events that led up to that online purchase:
- An email about a sale at my favorite store popped up
- I knew I didn’t really need to spend money on new clothes, but I was just curious to see how good the sale was, so I clicked on the link
- The website had cute pair of jeans in my size on sale for a really good price!
- I didn’t want to miss out on that deal, so I added the jeans to my online cart
- Because I knew I didn’t really need to spend the money, I closed out of the browser window (Goodbye, jeans!)
- The store emailed me 30 minutes later reminding me that I’d left something in the cart (Hate that they do that now… creepers!)
- I clicked on that link because I still kind of wanted those jeans
- My payment information is stored on the website, so those jeans were only one click away…
- I bought the freakin’ jeans.
Okay, I know that is crazy detailed, but are you starting to see why?
There are several things in there that jump out at me as red flags. Pivotal points at which, had I made a different choice, the outcome could have been better.
By simply stating, “I ordered a pair of jeans online that I don’t really need,” I would have missed out on the opportunity to discover the pivotal points and hidden behaviors that led to the outcome.
What was my goal? What did I want to happen?
It’s important at this step to attach a bigger goal to the desired outcome. Because in one sense, what I wanted to happen was to get the FedEx dude dropping those jeans on my doorstep ASAP. But that desire wasn’t connected to a big-picture, long-term goal. It was connected to the desire for the short-term satisfaction of getting something I liked for a great price (The power of perceived value won me over! …but this isn’t marketing 101, so I’ll stop).
Therefore, in order to figure out what I really wanted to happen, I need to take a step back and inventory my values and goals.
I have way too many clothes as it is, so one of my goals is to only purchase clothes that I truly need. I’m also trying to be more mindful about spending.
Therefore, what I really wanted to happen was to not purchase anything.
Why did it happen that way?
If point D is the outcome, what were points A, B, and C? The forks in the road where decisions were made? What were those pivotal points that led to the outcome?
For my jeans purchase, it would look like this:
- I got an email about a sale
- Choosing to browse the sale, I found some jeans I liked
- Deciding not to buy them, I closed the website
- I received a second email dangling the jeans in front of me
- I went back to the website for the jeans
As you can see, the point of digging into the “why” is to develop a roadmap of the twists and turns that led to the ultimate destination. At each of the points above, a choice was made that affected the outcome.
What was my role in causing the outcome?
Leave pride at the door here. If you’re going to learn from your experiences, you’ll have to be honest with yourself about your choices and behavior. Ignoring uncomfortable truths doesn’t help you learn and grow, so don’t do it.
If you have difficulty being objective about what your role was, imagine someone else in your scenario, and try and identify where they took a wrong turn.
Each of the points on the roadmap above was a pivotal point at which a significant choice was made. Run through each pivotal point, and figure out what your choices were at each one. This is kind of like a decision tree.
Jeans Purchase Decision Tree
- I got an email about a sale
- Could have deleted it
- Could have clicked the link
- I clicked the link
- I browsed the sale, out of curiosity
- Could have stopped myself and closed the website then and there
- Could have kept browsing, “just to see” what was on sale
- I kept browsing and found a pair of jeans, added them to my cart
- I realized I didn’t need the jeans
- Could have closed the website
- Could have purchased them despite knowing I didn’t need them
- I closed the website (Yay me!)
- I got a second email, which reminded me of the jeans
- Could have deleted it
- Could have clicked the link
- I clicked the link, and ended up buying the jeans because I didn’t want to miss out on the low price (Boo…)
Out of 4 decisions, I only got one right! I get an F in decision making!!
Seriously though, the idea here is not to beat yourself up. The idea is to identify the points at which you made good choices, and the ones where you could have made better choices.
By looking at my little decision tree above, I can see that even 1 other good decision would have changed the outcome. Also, I notice that those emails are really what got this snowball started!
Cause and effect
This is where you pull it all together. What happened, what should have happened, why, and what was my role?
This can actually be really simple. Just fill in the blanks:
________ happened instead of _______ because ________, and I _______
“An unnecessary purchase happened instead of buying nothing, because I gave in to curiosity about a sale, and I found a “good deal” even though I knew I didn’t need the item.”
It’s kind of a run-on sentence, but it hits the nail on the head. (Sort of) short and simple.
What can I do differently next time? What did I do well?
This is where the learning happens. Look at each pivotal point on your decision roadmap and determine why you made the choice you did. What would have caused you to make the better choice each time? Going a step further, what could you do to prevent a similar situation in the future? For example:
- If I had simply deleted the 2 emails I received (“Sale!” and “You forgot your jeans!”), that purchase would have never been made
- I decided to tempt fate and look at the sale stuff, rather than stopping myself
- 1 decision I got right: Closing out of the website before making the purchase the first time (Yay! I DO have some willpower!)
To take it a step further, I can look at the lynchpin that got this whole crazy train rolling: Those emails. How can I prevent the irresistible allure of an email promising a sale?
By removing the key that unlocked Pandora’s box, I can rest assured that that particular retail will no longer be able to tempt me with promises of low, low prices on jeans I don’t need. By learning that one little lesson from this experience, I’ll save myself money, won’t buy clothes I don’t need, and won’t worry about missing a sale (Because I won’t even know about it!). That will definitely help me meet my goals and up my happiness factor!
Oh. And the one-click purchasing. Remember that from way at the beginning? Another nugget of wisdom: If I drop that like the bad habit that it is, I’ll have to enter my credit card information before completing the purchase, which will give me one last chance to make a better choice.
My jeans example is a little frivolous, but it’s a real-life example where I learned from my experiences and made changes as a result. AARs apply to way more than just denim!
Life is sort of like those “choose your own adventure” books you may have read as a kid. Except it’s not a book, it’s real life.
And while you can’t just turn back the pages and make a different choice, doing an after-action report can provide you with perspective on your choices and insight as to why you made them. Use an after-action report to examine both positive and negative experiences in your life to figure out what’s working, what isn’t working, and what you could be doing better. You’ll be able to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
To quote Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Unknowingly bite into a coconut nougat mess, do an AAR, and learn to identify that coco-nasty concoction visually, before you bite into it. Once you learn from your experiences, you’ll have a pretty good chance of knowing which chocolate you’re going to get.