Learning from Experience: Dont Subvert Yourself
Learning from our experiences can be tricky, especially if the experience is painful or difficult. We are all familiar with the mantra those that dont understand history are condemned to repeat the same mistakes.
Unfortunately, learning from our own mistakes can have a somewhat sinister component that may condemn us to a pattern of continuing to undercut our own performance.
Those of us who pursue excellent performance in any area are will always encounter failures of the moment and frustration. How we use those moments to improve our performance is critical.
Recent research in psychology reveals some unwanted tricks that we can play on ourselves when we are struggling to accomplish objectives that are difficult to reach.
One of the most sinister is that when we compare our current actual achievement with where we want to go, there is a tendency to unconsciously start to believe that Im not good enough or that Im a looser, etc.
This unconscious belief begins to work on our sense of self-worth and self-confidence. This nasty little voice begins to gnaw at us any time we begin to work on something right at the limits of our current competence.
There are many things in life that are insanely difficult to master. Think about playing the piano, differential calculus and of course powerlifting. Eventually mastering these new complex skills involves overcoming all manner of obstacles. Among the most difficult to overcome are persistent doubts about whether you actually can succeed at what you are trying to do.
When the inevitable failures occur there are many options available that can become very self-destructive.
Perhaps the most common is self-blaming of the sort that says, I didnt work hard enough, or Im really not good enough to succeed.
This can lead to overwork and more poor results or perhaps injury.
When you take the perspective of a detached observer (outside observer) who sees the failure you experience, the analysis of what went wrong becomes much less personal. To make progress it is imperative that one focus on the objective reasons for having difficulty.
The little voice in our heads is a relentless critic. It is important not to believe everything it says.
Be objective about what is going on and craft a plan to correct things.
Before leaving the subject of unconscious messages and how they can dissolve chances someone might have for success, let me tell you about the special hell that exists for people who avoid addressing their failures or try to cover them up.
Let me illustrate with a story.
I have often been amused or amazed at the exaggerations a few lifters make when discussing their own performance. One that comes to mind at the moment is a guy I met in a gym about ten years ago who told me that he routinely deadlifted well over 900 pounds.
Having seen the great drug free lifter Bull Stewart pull a monster 805 back in the day and knowing that only 4 men in history had pulled over 1000 (all of whom were huge and loaded), I found the claim of a 900-pound deadlift by this 180-pound guy to be utter fantasy.
This character clearly thought I would believe his bs story. He got to feel big time for a few minutes having told a perfect stranger that he could deadlift 900.
Lying about ones performance or creating a completely mythical story provides some temporary sense of self-worth.
However, the cost of routine lying can be enormous.
Except for narcissists, people who habitually lie begin to have an unconscious image of themselves as a liar.
Lying creates the double whammy of feeling inadequate for not being able to do something AND then lying about it.
This makes learning from mistakes extremely difficult. Lying is easy and seems to convince and audience. Deep down the liar has a self-image of being both a looser and a liar.
You can see how lying can make it nearly impossible to de-personalize a failure and learn from a difficult experience?
It is always useful to remind ourselves that failures are events, not people. Someone who has bombed in a powerlifting meet (or done poorly on an organic chemistry test) can either think Im a failure or I experienced a failure.
Separate the event from your identity.
This is easier to do when there is no emotional investment in the activity. However, doing your best to treat a specific failure as an event with causes that can be diagnosed is essential if you are going to correct whatever is wrong.
Simply glossing over the event or telling your subconscious to shut up and have a positive attitude will only perpetuate responding in a self-defeating manner.
Recognize that two things are at work simultaneously:
- What actually happened
- How you are thinking about what happened
To really learn from individual failures it is important to clearly define both of these points. Then you can move ahead without undercutting your own performance.