Learning from Experience of Others

I wish I had served on the promotion panels before. It is grueling work & eye bugging, but all that reading is paying off in terms of vicarious experience. Each individual report is an encapsulated history/biography for a year and a whole file paints a picture of the progress of a career. My colleagues have done lots of interesting things, achieved some great things and made their shares of mistakes and in these experiences are valuable lessons.

After reading and thinking about what the texts tell, you see patterns in individual careers, in the ways of the FS and – excuse the hyperbole – even in the development of the world in the last decades.  For all the important things that happened, some of us were there, close up and personal.  These sorts of files will someday make excellent primary historical sources. I am sure they do already.  

So serving on the boards has been personally enlightening. I can see how the kinds of work I do fit in – or sometimes not – with the bigger events.  I think it is nearly impossible to see this perspective when you are thinking about your own career or when you are down in the day-to-day fight.  We all like to think we are unique and that the problems we face and solve are special. In detail, they are that; in general they are not.   

The names and the places change, but the situations recur … monotonously. I think we can learn from history and that with the wisdom of experience we may be able to avoid some problems, but not all.  They mutate enough that we just cannot always recognize them or anticipate all the permutations. Experience might allow us to minimize pain or pass through hard times easier and faster, but we will still have hard times.

Progress in careers is never linear. I don’t think it can be.  Not every year can have bigger achievements than the one before.  I can read that there were times when the people involved must have thought their careers were finished.  Often this comes just before a big opportunity or a jump to a bigger achievement. I don’t think this is a mere random occurrence.  Opportunities may come and go, but being able to see them and take advantage of them is a skill and a choice.  Maybe the setback or the career doldrums give the affected person the chance and incentive for introspection and reinvention or maybe just a time to rest before continuing up the mountain.  

It is success that can be more dangerous. It breeds arrogance & complacency and makes you less likely to consider changes, improvements and alternatives. A very successful person may be blind to opportunities. Failure is a better teacher, as long as you can see a way out of it. Of course, if you fail consistently, perhaps you taking the wrong lessons, or none at all.

I can see patterns of success and failure in the files and when I look back I can see them in my own career. They are repetitive and faults are astonishing persistent; it is hard for people to get away from them.  You can travel 1000 miles and leave everything else behind – except you always have to take yourself along on the journey. I recall one of those “de-motivating” saying, “the only consistent factor in your failed relationships is you.” The same goes for success. Of course, we tend to blame failure on outside factors or bad luck, but assume success is earned and maybe overdue.  All those things are true, and vise-versa.