When we’re young, we learn primarily via experience. Toddlers explore their environment, learning that they can amble around the floor, but to be careful when a ledge or stairs appear. Sometimes they need to take a tumble to learn the vital lesson before it’s ingrained. Parents might desperately try to instill the lesson early, but because a toddler can’t quite communicate and understand effectively, they often have to learn from their mistakes. They touch the hot stove, realizing quickly that they’ve made a mistake that they’ll never repeat. Sometimes, their parents might warn them, but they refuse to listen, committing the act only to see that mom or dad was right.
Experiential learning dominates our early lives. We don’t quite believe it unless we experience it. As we grow into adults, this type of learning is supposed to give way to a more transmissible form. We learn from others, heeding their advice. School teaches us from texts and lectures, and we trust the information despite not seeing it for ourselves.
But something strange happens when we face unknowns. For many of us, we default to our toddler ways. We neglect the experience of others, believing that our experience will somehow be different. We fall back on needing to experience something ourselves before we change our minds.
We are fooled by experience, weighing that which has happened to us, that which we can see and tangibly feel, while discounting that which feels disconnected, far away.
We focus on what we see and feel. It’s a cognitive bias. That doesn’t mean that experiential learning doesn’t have a place. It does. It’s wonderful. It’s one way to develop. But, and this is a big but, when faced with decisions involving complexity ambiguity, we need to realize that our default is to be biased by experience. To lean into it. To neglect, justify, or explain away data that conflicts with what we can see right in front of us.
Experiential learning may serve as a foundation, but at some point, we need to evolve. To be able to learn from others, to look out into the world, to look back at history, and to read and understand data. All of which might feel abstract and even contradict what our personal experience is shouting at us, but is necessary to make good decisions.
If we have to wait until we experience something, it’s often much too late. We’re the man who stubbornly stayed in his home with a hurricane barreling down because he’d “been through these before,” neglecting the experts and data telling him this time is different. We’re the coach who had success once upon a time and has stubbornly repeated that same one year of experience, thirty years in a row. We’re the person that doesn’t know anyone in our immediate orbit with COVID-19 so we shun the public health guidelines only to become gravely ill a few weeks later.
Sure, seeing (and feeling) is believing. But the mark of a good decision maker is believing—when the evidence demands—even if you can’t see the full picture for yourself.