Why The Deepest Lessons Take Time To Absorb

This post, by John Caddell, originally appeared on the 99%: Insights On Making Ideas Happen site. While the article takes business ventures as its subject, the advice in it can be helpful to those dealing with failed books and other creative projects, as well.

As the expression goes, "hindsight is always 20/20." But how long does it take to get that 20/20 perspective? Here’s what Jerome Chazen, the co-founder of fashion house Liz Claiborne, told Knowledge@Wharton about the biggest mistake of his long career at the company:
With the benefit of hindsight, I would have worked harder to moderate our growth. I think we allowed the growth potential to overtake the company instead of us being in charge of it. It’s a hard thing to explain. But you know, it was so exciting, for me anyway, to report better and better numbers, especially after we went public. I mean I loved it. I loved those quarterly [numbers] that were up 20% or 40%, whatever. I think, looking back now, that I got carried away, that we should have done things more moderately.

Liz Claiborne went public in 1981. Thirty years later, Chazen had learned the lesson that his excitement over making quarterly numbers was not in the long-term best interests of the company.
This kind of time lag in learning from a mistake is not unusual. For the deepest lessons an individual can learn, it’s required. Only with the passing of time can the intense emotions (positive or negative) of an event fall away and allow us to recognize mistakes and our contribution to them.
Not every mistake takes 30 years to absorb. Small oversights, process errors, results of projects or experiments can be evaluated hours, days or weeks after completion. Failures of these types result from lack of knowledge, routine human error, or poor assumptions.

But with another class of mistakes the stakes are much higher – the setbacks and failures that derail your future plans or call into question your self-image. These are the ones that occur because of your deepest weaknesses and flaws. For this reason, we prefer to avoid thinking about these mistakes, or to attribute them to circumstances out of our control.

I’ll share a personal example. I started my own consulting business in 2006. I expected that all the people who’d benefited from my expertise in my 20-year career would come calling as soon as I hung out my shingle.
Yet it took me seven months to land my first client. A little while later I got a second, who sustained the business for two more years. When that project ended, I couldn’t replace the lost revenue. I realized I couldn’t make a go of it, and took a corporate job. I spent my first year as a salaried employee in complete denial. Any incoming call or email tempted me to jump right back into consulting. I blamed the failure on any reasonable factor – the poor economy, the structural changes in my industry, a dispute with my former company.
All those factors contributed to the situation, but dwelling on them was beside the point. It wouldn’t change anything going forward. I had to understand what I could have done differently, what I should do differently next time.


Read the rest of the article on 99%.