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Why do some people never learn?

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Why do some people never learn?

Scott Miker

Every now and then when I give a speech to a group about the systems and habits approach to improvement, I have someone approach me after the speech with a familiar refrain.

He or she will start by stating they enjoyed what I had to say. Then they would proceed to tell me about some person in their life that really should hear what I say because they make all sorts of mistakes.

I understand their sentiment but I’m always a little bummed that my message was received this way. If anything, I hope to discourage the judging of others and instead focus solely on us. How can I improve?

So when they obviously don’t take this approach I always put that on me. I didn’t portray the information in a way for them to take action, and instead they simply thought of someone else who has made mistakes that are obvious to them.

But this actually makes sense when we study decision-making. Because of the multitude of factors in every scenario and the fact that we are incredibly biased towards our own choices, we often miss the ability to improve.

We do this because we can always find some factor that supports our beliefs. In Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke, the professional poker player and speaker gives us a little more understanding of what is occurring.

She says, “Outcomes don’t tell us what’s our fault and what isn’t, what we should take credit for and what we shouldn’t. Unlike in chess, we can’t simply work backward from the quality of the outcome to determine the quality of our beliefs or decisions. This makes learning from outcomes a pretty haphazard process. A negative outcome could be a signal to go in and examine our decision-making. That outcome could also be due to bad luck, unrelated to our decision, in which case treating that outcome as a signal to change future decisions would be a mistake. A good outcome could signal that we made a good decision. It could also mean that we got lucky, in which case we would be making a mistake to use that outcome as a signal to repeat that decision in the future.”

In other words, we can’t just go through an experience to learn from it. We likely won’t be attributing the decisions we made and the luck we experienced to the correct aspects.

If we decide to take a risk and invest in a friend’s business and it succeeds, we will likely feel that our decision was the correct one. If that business fails, we will likely blame the elements of luck involved. It might not be that we say luck but it could be that we blame a market change or a new competitor or something else outside of our control.

But in order to learn and improve we have to be able to isolate the elements that we have control over and then process the decision accurately. We have to realize that almost every decision in life has an element of uncertainty and chance.

Therefore, we can’t simply look at outcomes to judge our decisions. It could be that we made a horrible decision and got lucky just as much as we could make a great decision but it not work out for us.

One problem is that in hindsight the outcome is obvious. It seems like there should have been a 100% chance of rain in the forecast after it rained. It obviously rained and we know 100% that it rained.

The reason the weather forecasters give us a lessor percentage is because it might rain or it might not. They use several factors to predict the odds that it will rain but there is always uncertainty involved. Prior to that day, we can only give a sense of whether it will rain or not. In other words we might say about tomorrow’s chance of rain that it is 40% chance of rain. It would be silly to say that yesterday it has a 40% chance that it rained. Obviously after the day we are examining whether it rained or not was 0% or 100%.

Living in Cleveland I used to joke that weather forecasters in Cleveland have it rough. If they could simply move to a stable climate such as Yuma, AZ. Yuma has the most sunny days of any city in the US. It has a 90% chance of sunshine for the average day in the year.

So does that mean that weather forecaster’s in Yuma have better tools to predict the weather? Are they better forecasters because they are right more often?

So if you are looking to improve, make sure you understand that the uncertainty in life could be hiding in areas that we should be improving. Don’t let luck get confused as skill or a good decision when it was simply a chance outcome.

Instead look for the things that you have control over and start to look for patterns. When you make a similar decision, what outcomes have you received? Do you tend to make choices that mostly result in failure but occasionally result in success? Or do you make choices that mostly result in success but occasionally result in failure?

An important part of learning is to examine our choices and how they turn out but experience by itself is a horrible teacher because there are simply too many factors. In order to learn we have to be able to see the many factors and then look for patterns instead of a single outcome to justify our choice.