Mastering your own Experience

by Diego on 09/10/2011

Master your ExperienceThis post is about a lesson I learned recently. To better understand it, imagine yourself in the following situation (it’s a bit surreal, but try to “see” yourself there): you wake up in a bed that’s not yours. You don’t remember how you ended up there, and you find yourself surrounded by people who speak a language you don’t know. They keep moving, they make noise, but you don’t understand what’s going on. Suddenly they grab you, they throw you in a car, and they strap you to the seat. You can’t move, you try to communicate, but your words are ignored, while the strangers keep talking to each other. After a long trip, you get forcibly taken out of a car and carried in a dark building. Many more people are there, and you recognize just a few of them. Everybody looks very busy, there’s a lot of noise coming from somewhere. You can’t understand what’s going on, you just get carried around. This lasts for a while, when you get taken back to the car, strapped once again, and carried to another building. There’s a lot of light there, and even more unfamiliar people who speak unknown languages. They seem to be able to understand each other, they also point at you, smiling. However, any effort you make to communicate is useless.

If you managed to imagine yourself in the above scenario, how do you think you would feel? If the answer is “frightened”, don’t worry: you’re a human being who had some bad experiences in his/her life, and your answer is perfectly normal.

What I wrote above is a summary of what happened to my daughter when she was five months old. What I wrote refers to the day of our wedding, when she had to sleep at some friends’ place with my wife and got carried the whole day, surrounded by people she had never seen before and to whom she could not communicate. Interestingly, she was not scared at all; on the opposite, she had a big smile on her face, all the time. This is because she didn’t have enough bad experiences (nor a fully developed memory) to condition her perception of the surroundings.

What does “Experience” mean, exactly?

Now, if we look at one definition of experience:

Experience: Philosophy. The totality of the cognitions given by perception; all that is perceived, understood, and remembered.

Perceive, understand, remember. This is a natural mechanism that all animals possess, and its purpose is simple: survival. By perceiving, understanding and remembering, we learn to make use of what’s good and avoid/prevent what’s wrong, thus increasing our chances of having a longer life. Like all other animals, we naturally tend to remember negative experiences better than positive ones and, therefore, we are inclined to “get ready for the worse” whenever we are in a situation of uncertainty. Look at any small animal: if you dash towards it, it most probably run/fly/swim away. They don’t know what’s going on, so they don’t take chances.
Unfortunately, this safety mechanism can become counterproductive to us; it’s a low-level instinct, and it can easily override all rationality we developed since the day we decided to become a homo sapiens. When it happens, our experience is dominating us; in some way, we become slaves of our past.

What impact does it have on us?

Everybody has some sort of bad feelings now and then; going to the dentist, speaking in public, going to a meeting with strangers or, in a case related to this blog’s scope, starting a new business idea. In this last case, what we learned could become our worst enemy, and lead us to a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. After all, who said we will succeed? This could lead to panic, demotivation and, in the end, to giving up our plans and ideas.
Personally, I have had a terrible experience with a past attempt at starting a business, which ultimately costed me a significant amount of money and countless hours of unpaid work. Believe me, working 70+ hours a week for two years just to cover the losses (that means not a cent in my pockets) is not pleasant. It took me six years to recover from that; six years I spent hating the idea of self-employment and seeing (and saying) only bad things about it.

Break the Chains and become your own Leader

I won’t portray myself as a total-self-control-guru; on the opposite, I’m probably one of the most impulsive and instinctive people around on this planet. Breaking free of these automatic mechanism is, therefore, particularly important to me, especially now that I embarked on my second attempt to start a business. Here are some tricks I learned, in the hope you can use them and adapt them to your needs.

  1. Accept Failure

    Have you ever heard the sentence “Failure is not an option”? I bet you did. Well, it’s a lie. Period. It works in Hollywood movies, but reality is different. Failure is a certainty, like death, but, unlike it, it’s just more frequent. If you want to succeed, you must, first of all, accept that there’s nothing wrong it failing. Don’t be harsh with yourself, and focus your efforts in learning from your own mistakes.
    I used to be unreasonably demanding with myself, and the more I “punished” myself for my failures, the more frequent they became. Things got better when I stopped wasting energy in punishment and putting them into constructive self-criticism. And things got even better when I learned the second trick!

  2. Connect and Share with People

    This is one of the most important things you have to do. It wasn’t easy for me, as, being the “frightened rabbit” that I am, I tended not to trust anybody. My previous experience in business went wrong because of some of the people involved in it, and therefore I thought the only way to succeed was to do everything myself. So wrong I can’t describe it…
    Succeeding on your own is not impossible, but it’s extremely hard. Learn to connect with people, build relationships, earn and grant trust. Look for people who’d welcome your knowledge, and that would be happy to share theirs. Don’t be afraid of asking for help, and be ready to give it when asked.

  3. Be yourself

    This is normally something said to people who have difficulties building a personal relationship, but it applies to business as well. After all, you should be looking to building a relationship with your customers/partners; the fact that there won’t be body contact involved doesn’t make much of a difference.
    I’ve seen a few blogs around re-packaging and reselling someone else’s information, probably in the hope of getting a share of their success. It obviously doesn’t work, as I haven’t seen any of these blogs thriving with followers or even mere visitors. They are trying to sell something they don’t have, be something they are not. Be honest with yourself, and your chances of succeeding will increase tenfold.

  4. Work on Projects, not towards Goals

    This is a great trick I learned it by reading the book Super Coach, by Michael Neill. Establishing and working towards goals has a fundamental flaw: working towards a goal can lead to demotivation. This is because a the very own definition of goal.

    Goal: the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.

    End is the key here. If you see success as depending on reaching the goal, you will not be successful until you finally reach it. The farther the goal, the more time you’ll be spending in this “not successful” state.

    If, instead, you learn to see success as working on a project, every effort you put into it will be a success by itself. M. Neill does a great job summarizing the major differences between the two approaches:

    Goals are reached in the future. With a goal, you’re failing until the moment you succeed.
    Project are worked on in the present. With a project, you’re successful until the moment you fail.

Conclusion

I’m pretty sure I still have lots to learn and that I can only improve. However, thanks to the above tricks, my journey will be a continuous improvement. The last one, especially, is what makes me feeling successful every day; it allows me to see each small step as a progress, and I’m sure that, soon, I’ll be able to make the most out of my experience.

Image: Jennifer Ellison / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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