Why and how to reflect on your experiences

by | Sep 25, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” 
― John Dewey

This quote sums up my response to powerful Hurricane Irma as she barreled toward the Southeastern United States earlier this month.

Even when the computer weather models showed Irma’s path heading toward the middle and east coast of Florida and away from the state’s east coast up north to Charleston, SC where I live, I decided my husband, dog and I still needed to evacuate to safe ground.

My decision was based on my first-hand experiences with natural and man-made disasters and my co-authorship of the 2006 book Leading People Through Disasters.  

Over the years, I’ve learned through experience and reflection that it’s physically and mentally easier for me to avoid the onset of disasters if I can. It’s not denial, but instead distance and distraction in a pleasant spot, often with family. Then when conditions are safe, I’ll return home and start dealing with the consequences.

Luckily my husband agrees with my philosophy. We quickly work together to prepare for disasters, including executing our exit plan. We withhold judgment on how others respond; this system is what we’ve learned that works well for us.       

Our neighborhood floods in a heavy rain. So we didn’t need super powers to predict that the combination of heavy rains, strong winds, high tide and a storm surge could submerge our street and several blocks around us in 3-1/2 to 4 feet of water. (Hurricane Irma produced a tsunami a couple of hours ahead of the high tide, which had the same effect.)

When we returned home this time, we were relieved to see we had escaped relatively unscathed, especially compared with the residents of Florida who face many challenges for recovering. Hurricane Irma left us souvenirs, especially loads of pluff mud that clung to the grass, sidewalks, plants and anything else outdoors. (The featured photo shows our sidewalk, which is one block from the sea wall that breached.)

As my neighbors, husband and I toiled to remove the thick, shiny, slippery brown-gray South Carolina Lowcountry mud with its idiosyncratic odor, I had plenty of time to think.

I recalled Columbia University Professor Hitendra Wadhwa and his webinar from the previous week. He had talked about how leaders in traditional organizations ooze (well, actually my word) with self-confidence and are action oriented.

Yet in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, the professor explained that leaders now need to be reflective and iterative in their actions.

If you jump in too quickly to “fix” a problem, you may discover that you’ve defined the problem incorrectly. Or you may be facing a dilemma instead, which isn’t solvable, but deserves especially thoughtful well-considered approach.

That’s why it’s so important to be constantly learning as we go. This includes learning from our experiences, even if we never repeat them by choice or circumstance.

To help you learn and reflect about your experiences, whether they are personal challenges, difficult work projects or whatever, take some time to ask yourself these five questions:

  • What did we learn from this experience? About what we did? About us?
  • What’s worth repeating about this experience? What should we try to avoid?
  • How will this experience affect what we believe in? Our cause? Our purpose?
  • If we went through this experience again, what would we do differently?
  • What did we learn about our assumptions going into this experience? How should that influence our future assumptions?

Feel free to think like John Dewey, who’s known as the father of progressive education, and ask other questions that may be more relevant to you and your situation. And include your colleagues too.

By the way, Dewey who lived from 1859 to 1952 was ahead of his time. He believed that students could learn more by experience, interactions with others and inquiry-based lessons than by memorizing facts. Research, as explained in this post, For better recall, try social learning, has now proven him right for students of all ages.

Facts are still important, of course. For example, until I researched the man and his quote, I thought John Dewey was the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System for classifying books in the library. But Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) created his system in 1876 to make finding and returning books easier.

Nonetheless, my immediate lesson for you as well as myself is to take some time to reflect on your experiences. You may learn something helpful and useful.

When will you take a few minutes to reflect?


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