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The Myth of Learning from Experience: How Experimental Avoidance (EA)…

By September 27, 2010October 15th, 20142 Comments

Are you smarter and wiser than you were last year or even last month? Learning from experience is critical to gains in thinking and performance. But what if we were to tell you that in many cases, when it matters most, learning from experience may be a myth? Read on to discover the danger of EA—experiential avoidance—our natural tendency to avoid or pull away from painful experiences.

In the 2009 HBR article, “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions,” the authors note that “OUR BRAINS leap to conclusions and are reluctant to consider alternatives; we are particularly bad at revisiting our initial assessment of a situation. (See pg. 66.)

What is the impact of experiential avoidance in the workplace? Let’s all sigh as we recall watching behavior that derails careers, strategies, and relationships. We see (or perhaps have been) the person with a high need for control that shies away from, or discounts the strong emotions that often accompany challenging experiences. Around the corner we find a friend or colleague frozen in the face of personal conflict. Perhaps you know someone who is stuck in one of many common neural ruts—such as excessively negative evaluations of self and others.

Experience with insight produces the learning required for change.

Having the confidence and courage to mine our own wisdom from emotional experience is a critical and sought-after capability—whether we are leaders, teachers, coaches, consultants, or mentors.

Dr. Lou Cozolino, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, says: “Because thinking serves at the pleasure of emotion, our emotional maturation provides a necessary platform for the quantum leap from thought to wisdom.”We believe that to masterfully and morally help others we must be devoted to understanding ourselves.

Developing insight helps our mind and brain to make sense of the past. In fact, by working with the emotional information that accompanies challenging experiences we have the potential to change our brain and avoid the trap of automatic thinking.

In a recent teleconference Dr. Ron Siegel, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and award-winning author, noted the growing popularity of mindful awareness practices across diverse disciplines. The reason: mindfulness is a partial antidote to the experiential avoidance that blocks the insight required to translate experience into learning. Mindful awareness allows us to embrace our experiences—opening them for reflection and learning.

So, we ask—what does it take to rewire our brains with new insight? Do you have the courage to step out of your busy routine and embrace your emotional experiences and information for life-changing insight? Learning from experience is not for the faint of heart—but the alternative is sobering. Witness the bottom-line impact of costs related to workplace stress, poor decision-making (think oil company, BP), and a lack of engagement

Published on Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine Review Blog.