Truly learning a lesson is deeper than simply knowing the lesson. It’s possible to know a whole lot more than you’re capable of acting on with regularity. And it’s the act, not the mere knowing, that makes the difference.
When it comes to physical lessons, we instinctually know this. I know the steps it takes to do a kickflip ollie on a skateboard, but I still haven’t practiced nearly enough to pull it off. I wouldn’t expect to be able to do this without spending hours and hours of repetition.
But when it comes to mental lessons, it seems like most of us don’t respect the need to practice. I wrote about how this applies to learning something like programming to the level of mastery a few days ago. But it applies to life and business lessons as well.
Take the simple example of “I shouldn’t infer intention from action”. I know and believe this, but I still fail to practice it frequently.
Let’s say someone criticizes my work. I might infer that they’re just doing this to needle me needlessly because I criticized their work a few weeks back. That this really isn’t about the work, but it’s about retribution for an earlier skirmish.
That might be true. It is one of the possibilities. But it’s probably not that likely. It’s probably more likely that there’s simply a mistake in my work and the person spotted it. Unrelated to whatever discussion we had about their work weeks back.
But we humans love to jump to conclusions and validate our insecurities. That’s why we need lessons and coping mechanisms to do better. And that’s why it’s not just enough to know them, but to practice and be reminded all the time.
A strategy I’ve successfully used to remind myself in moments of need is to look for emotional smoke. If I’m getting upset about someone pointing out an error in my work, and it’s not because they’re being a dick about it, then that’s smoke. If you tune your emotional smoke detector to go off when your mood changes or your temperament flares, you give yourself a pause to contemplate which lesson you should be practicing.
The instinctual autopilot is great when the sky is blue and there’s no turbulence, but as soon as the clouds gather and the ride gets rocky, it’s time to grab the wheel with intent. So that’s what I try to do. Be mindful of emotional disturbances, hit pause when I spot them, and go through my current curriculum to find the lesson that clearly still needs attention.
The most important lessons are so because they’re hard. They’re the ones that take the most work to internalize, lest we forget in the moment and take action without their input. They are the ones we need to hear over and over again.
Pause yourself. Remind yourself. Repeat yourself.