The titular phrase is well-known in the military, though this might be a different take on the adage. This one came out of a morning conversation with fellow FLUX-ers, where we briefly chatted about life experiences that we didn’t look forward to, didn’t like when we were in the midst of them, yet have grown to cherish them over the years. To draw a line, we’re talking about experiences that didn’t involve actual threats to life or violence.
Picture a simple framework. There are three attributes that can have positive or negative value: anticipation, experience, and satisfaction. The “anticipation” attribute reflects how much we are looking forward to or dreading a situation we’re about to experience. “Experience” describes what we feel throughout the situation. “Satisfaction” is our long-term attitude toward the experience.
Lining up possible values, we have a simple three-row four-column table, starting with all three attributes being negative (“hated coming into it, hated being in it, and keep hating it ever since”) and eventually flipping them, one-by-one, to positive (“loved the idea of it, love every minute of it, still smiling when thinking about it”).
If we try to draw a graph of experiential learning on top of that table, it is fairly evident that the amount of experiential learning is the highest in the middle, and lowest at the edges – kinda like a bell curve. Those experiences that made us uncomfortable at first, but turned into a fond memory later are the ones where we learned something. Perhaps we didn’t realize how much we’d love broccoli. Or maybe reliably shipping the same product instead of trying to build something new every few months. Everyone will have their story of a transformative experience like that. On the fringes, neither experience is particularly educational: the left-most predictably sucks and the right-most reliably rocks.
However, if we try to draw a curve of learning potential, we’ll see something more like a power curve. Despite us learning a lot in the middle of the graph, it’s all of the obvious kind: we were thrust into a novel situation and were able to orient ourselves using some tweaks to our existing mental models. The highest potential for learning will hide in the least pleasant corner: it is here where we weren’t able to relate to the environment in a productive way.
It is in these situations we have the most to learn, to update our models of the environment. The suckiness is the signal. It tells us that there are gems of wisdom and insight to be discovered. This will feel counterintuitive – I had a bad experience, and that’s the one where I stand the most to learn from? Shouldn’t I just shove it down into the back corner of my memory and never think about it again? And usually, it feels so right to do just that.
To countervail, we can develop a habit to look at our past totally sucky experiences with a kind of inward-focused curiosity: what was it within me that reacted so negatively to it? What was being protected and why? Is there perhaps something to learn about this part of me that is being protected, something that would help me see this past experience in a different light?