Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Trial and Error Driven Life

Our lives need goals. They also need direction and purpose. We may not know why we're here but that does not make it all meaningless.

Our lives also need achievements and improvements. No one feels very happy stagnating.

Given that this is one of those occasions when we can get to there from here, I want to look at some advice offered by business coaches in the Harvard Business Review.

Peter Bregman advises us to live our lives as though we were conducting an experiment. Link here. Nothing more fully defines the trial and error driven life than the concept of experiment.

I would add, as Bregman makes clear, that conducting your life as an experiment feels a lot like playing in a game. For my purposes, it is the antidote to living  your life as a drama or a narrative. The latter we can call a therapy driven life.

Fulfilling the terms of a narrative is quite different from fulfilling yourself. In my view if you opt for the first you will be giving up the second.

After Bregman's article I would draw your attention to Robert Sutton's article, "Forgive and Remember." Link here.

Sutton is offering advice to managers. He wants them to encourage their staffs to feel free to suggest all manner of good and bad ideas. And he wants managers to create a psychological safety net for their staff.

Staff members should be encouraged to admit error. They should also look askance at those who shift the blame and always present themselves as being in the right.

Obviously enough, if you cannot see where you have made an error, you cannot use the information to formulate a new trial, a new approach, or a new idea.

Let's look at how this all works out in everyday life. Using himself as an example, Bregman explains how he set up an experiment that involved returning an item to a store. He had purchased the item; he had tried it out; he had discovered that it did not serve his purposes; he was going to return it.

Yet, he knew that the store had a stockage fee, a 20% charge for returning the used item. The logic of the policy was unassailable. If the item had been used, they could no longer sell it as new. Thus, if they offered a full refund they would be losing some of their profit.

For the sake of this post we will graciously ignore the moral issue of whether or not Bregman should have even asked the store to waive the stockage fee.

Bregman began by asking himself how he should behave in order to maximize his chances of getting the fee waived.

Allow me to list some of his list of possible behaviors, with some of my own. He could try to argue; he could fight; he could try to browbeat the manager; he could threaten never to return to the store; he could make a scene; he could assert his power.

With some reflection Bregman decided that none of these would be effective. A trial and error life does involve making use of the lessons of past experience... almost by definition.

Bregman decided to try a different approach: to throw himself on the mercy of the manager. He decided to appeal to the manager's generosity.

He was not going to demand anything; he was not going to insist; he was not going to snarl or growl. He would explain humbly that it would be very nice if the manager could be so kind as to waive the stockage fee.

It feels like humility; it almost feels weak. Of course, it worked. If it had not, I suspect that we would not be reading his article.

Will it work in all circumstances? Probably not. Bregman does not imagine that this approach will always work, even with all managers.

He is not married to this persona; neither should you be married to any one persona. He is not enslaved to an emotion that requires expression; neither should you believe that you must, at all costs, express your emotion.

He is playing a game, not acting in a drama. His investment in the tactic is far less than it be if he had chosen to act like an angry young man and then had decided that that was who he really was. In that case, if you reject the persona and you reject him.

Given that Bregman is using trial and error, he does not delude himself into thinking that the meek humble person who kindly makes a request of the story manager is who he really is. If his tactic had failed, he would have returned to the drawing board, to devise another tactic for the next store manager.

As I say, he is not married to the tactic; it is like a move in a game. Either it works or it does not.

Does the same rule apply in different areas of life? Of course, it does.

If you have a goal in mind-- you want more sex-- and you adopt an approach that seems to turn off your spouse, doesn't that mean that you should change your approach? Better to change your approach than to try to overpower your spouse. Better to change your approach than to make yourself crazy by sticking with a failing approach. If it doesn't work, try something else.

If your attitude in the office or your conduct or your customary way of dressing is causing people to take you less seriously, you could complain about how they are all jealous or about how you have been misunderstood.

Or you could, in your trial and error driven life, work to change your attitude. If the Mr. Nice Guy routine is not working out for you, then try adding a bit of an edge or try being a little more forceful.

If the macho man routine is holding you back professionally, then perhaps you should recalibrate your image, change your style, and leave the biker gear at home.

Just make sure you don't go to the opposite extreme and transform yourself into Casper Milquetoast.

Too radical a transformation in front of people who know you well will not be credible and will not be taken seriously. Bregman was adopting a persona in front of someone who did not know him at all.

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