Teaching Employees and Yourself How to Learn From the Past

Michael Butler

One of my more powerful learning experiences happened bright and early on a holiday weekend. It was Memorial Day, and along with my team, I was in the office in the middle of an all-day working session to finish a proposal for a must-win contract. We’d all been pulling long hours and were exhausted. I was certainly no exception.

A new manager at the time, I’d been coached quite a bit about how I behaved under pressure — to be more mindful and careful about wearing my stress on my sleeve and how important it was to bring an optimistic voice into the room. So that morning, I decided to put my exhaustion aside and stay positive.

At midday, as we plowed through the working session, a senior leader and mentor of mine sent me a simple message: “I’m proud of you.”

It took me aback. I responded: “Thanks! Why?”

And she replied: “Look around you!”

So I did. The junior analysts and consultants I was responsible for were all actively engaged and working on the proposal. I felt a surge of pride. “I have a great team,” I told her.

“No, you did that,” she wrote back. “Leaders set the tone.”

I realized that she was right. I’d reflected on my experiences and captured an opportunity to do something differently. I arrived in the office that morning determined to lead with positivity — mindful of how my actions would affect others — and it made all the difference.

The Characteristics of a Learning Experience

That exhausting Memorial Day office session wasn’t the lesson here. Rather, my learning experience came when my mentor helped me reflect on the person I was then (and who I wanted to be in the future). Learning from your past, then, is about being mindful of learning opportunities when they arise, even in the midst of chaos and challenge. That’s how you’ll take advantage of these opportunities to grow.

Why is the ability to recognize a learning experience so important as you progress in your career? George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’d say this is true, but it’s only part of the story. 

As we progress through our careers, we’ll undoubtedly see similar events play out in similar contexts. Experience alone will make us better prepared to face these trials in the future, but career-shaping learning experiences don’t just come from analyzing our past. They come from analyzing ourselves — how we see the world, how we make decisions — and visualizing a better version of ourselves that we can achieve.

Teaching Employees to Learn From the Past

As leaders, we should also instill this recognition of learning in those we coach. Employees are often pushed for time and don’t prioritize their own learning. This might be because the idea of learning isn’t sufficiently recognized or defined by leaders. With this alternative vision — where learning and growth are continuous and mindfully derived from everyday experiences — we can solve this problem. 

As a leader, you can start by helping your team glean key lessons from their work experiences. There are three components that most learning experiences share, and identifying them will help employees spot impactful learning opportunities:

1. The buildup:

Think of a moment of tension you’ve experienced. Then, take a step back and examine it for patterns or causes. Maybe you were frustrated, maybe you were disappointed, or maybe you got feedback that didn’t feel quite right. Bring this sequence of contributing factors into your awareness. This is the first step toward learning.

Find a quiet moment. As you think about these experiences, ask yourself some questions: What happened? Why did I make the decisions I made? What was important to me about that event? These questions are easy to answer quickly and difficult to answer fully. Take time to reflect, even if you discover things that upset you. It can take a heavy dose of humility to truly dig into your past actions.

2. The catalyst:

With an awareness of the “buildup,” you’ll be better able to recognize other moments of tension when they arise. This catalyst moment happens when your improved self-awareness meets events that have previously held you back in your growth. This time, though, you’ll recognize the moment for what it is: an opportunity to approach the situation differently.

The key to seizing a catalyst moment isn’t to reflect solely on the past. Instead, you pause in the moment, identify all the factors that could hold you back, and decide to make a different decision.

3. The window of opportunity:

Many of us have decided to improve ourselves, only to allow life to sweep us along in its daily rhythm. After all, daily demands often mean we push self-improvement to the wayside and remain unchanged. In the magic time following a catalyst moment, then, you have a limited window to reap the benefits of your self-awareness.

When you encounter a catalyst, be prepared to reflect and ask yourself some questions: How do I feel now? What helped me through the event this time? How will my views change moving forward?

What’s different is that you’re answering these questions with all the power of the self-awareness you’ve cultivated by reflecting on your past decisions and activities. With the catalyst fresh in your mind, you can see yourself with clarity you might not have in your day-to-day experiences. But the window of opportunity for learning is short.

Life will inevitably zoom back in with its fast pace and array of distractions. This is certain. By identifying each learning experience and acting accordingly, though, you’ll respond differently next time around — all by harnessing the experiences that can shape you as a person and a leader. Remember: Recognizing and responding to these learning experiences is an incredibly powerful learning experience in and of itself.

Michael Butler

About the Author

Michael brings over 15 years of experience in technology consulting services with a passion for coaching and mentoring. As a technology advisor, Michael helps clients design and execute technology transformations, enabling his clients to approach change with confidence and adapt implementation tactics to achieve intended results. Michael is a driven people developer who builds high-performing, cross-functional teams that consistently operate at the highest levels of delivery excellence.

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