Experience Is A Tough Teacher

[Harvey Mackay’s Nationally Syndicated Column – November 12, 2020]

Have you ever heard the expression “seeing the elephant?”  It’s an expression that came out of the California gold rush.  Those planning to go west in search of gold announced to their friends that they were “going to see the elephant.”  Those who turned back discouraged claimed they had seen “the elephant’s tracks” or the “elephant’s tail,” and admitted that view was sufficient.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it this way: “to see the elephant: to see life, the world, or the sights; to get experience of life, to gain knowledge by experience.”

Here’s my take on it: To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.  Or take the road yourself and see what you learn.  Of course, it’s a lot easier to learn from others’ mistakes and often much less costly.

But for most of us, we have to experience things for ourselves.  When the outcome is good, we call it a successful experience.  But when things don’t work out as we hoped, we call it a “learning” experience.

Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. It is an expensive teacher sometimes.  Experience is the dividend you get from your mistakes.  Reportedly, Thomas Watson, the founder and first president of IBM, was asked if he was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost IBM $600,000.

He said, “No, I just spent $600,000 training him.  Why would I want somebody else to hire his experience?”

Watson was quoted in Reader’s Digest as saying: “Double your rate of failure … Failure is a teacher – a harsh one, perhaps, but the best … That’s what I have to do when an idea backfires or a sales program fails.  You’ve got to put failure to work for you … you can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it.  So go ahead and make mistakes.  Make all you can.  Because that’s where you will find success.  On the far side of failure.”

I’ve always said if you want to triple your success ratio, you have to triple your failure rate!  I would submit that we learn as much from our failures as we learn from our successes. That may sting a bit, but there is no free tuition in the school of experience.  Every time you graduate from the school of experience someone thinks up a new course.

Consider the man who asked his boss why three other people were promoted past him.  He said, “Boss, I have 20 years of experience in this job.”

The boss replied, “No, you don’t have 20 years of experience.  You have one year of experience 20 times.  You’ve been making the same mistakes since you first started.”

Some learn from experience.  Others never recover from it.

And the most important lesson we should learn from our experiences is that we can move past failures and put the errors to work, preparing us for better days ahead.  Realize that the lessons learned are valuable, even if they are embarrassing or depressing or seemingly insurmountable.  Giving in to failure is letting the bad experience win.

As tempting as it can be to want to forget about bad experiences, don’t.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  The past should be a guidepost, not a hitching post.  Use those difficult lessons to demonstrate your resilience and ability to learn from your mistakes.

Even better, learn from the mistakes of others.  I strongly encourage newcomers to connect with a mentor and extend that advice to folks at all stages of their careers.  The experience you can absorb is priceless, and the guidance that might prevent you from having too many bad experiences is invaluable.

The promoter for a local boxing champion arranged a match with an opponent he had never seen.  He had simply asked for an experienced fighter.  On the day of the fight, a middle-aged man with a crooked nose, a punch-drunk manner and two huge cauliflower ears arrived in the dressing room.  The promoter was aghast.

“I asked for an experienced fighter,” he complained, “but not a damaged one.”

Experience is a good teacher, but a hard one.  It gives the test first and the lesson afterward.   Experience enables you to recognize a mistake every time you repeat it.

Mackay’s Moral: There is no free tuition in the school of experience.

Harvey Mackay
Harvey Mackay





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