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Career Lessons: Learning From the Experience of Others

May 23rd, 2014

It’s been said that ordinary people learn from their mistakes, but wise people learn from everyone’s mistakes. As we launch our careers at the ground floor and slowly work our way up, we have plenty of opportunities to set challenging goals, fail, struggle back to square one, set new goals, and try again. And again. And every time we have to fight our way back to level ground, we have an opportunity to identify what went wrong so we can ideally sidestep that mistake on our next attempt. This is called “learning”. And in an emotional, financial, and even physical sense, this process can be expensive.

But what if we could find a way to gain the expensive and valuable lessons of failure without the costs that come from actually failing? What if we could build our careers on the struggles, disappointments, setbacks, and difficult lessons of the people around us, instead of ourselves? As it happens, there are no free shortcuts in this life, and no lessons are quite as powerful as the lessons of experience… but sometimes strong listening skills can provide an excellent low cost alternative. Here are a few ways to make the most of an often underutilized career resource—Other people’s mistakes.

1. Choose your targets carefully.

Before you avoid someone’s self-described “mistakes” or learn from someone’s “successes”, look closely. Does this person share your definitions for these terms? Is this person standing in a place where you’d like to be in the future? Are they the kind of person you want to become? Sometimes real self-knowledge is skewed and elusive. The things your companion considers regrets might be the very things that make her the extraordinary person she is. And the things he views as his proudest homeruns may not hold that much appeal for someone like you.

2. Don’t avoid mistakes by avoiding risk.

Recognize the difference between dodging a bullet and avoiding an experience. Your friend may have aimed high, taken a shot, and failed miserably. But that doesn’t necessary mean you should avoiding aiming high. Just take a close look at every step of his process, and see if you can execute a similar move with a little more preparation and a little more insight into the kinds of possibilities he couldn’t foresee.

3. Ask the right questions.

So your friend failed. She tried to start a business, she invested everything she had, and it didn’t work out. But before you draw conclusions from her story, get more information. Question your own assumptions. You might find out that her financial starting point, her support system, her business model and her years of success prior to the crash are not at all similar to yours.

To put your career on fast forward, open yourself up to the experience and lessons of the people around you. Start by arranging a consultation with the staffing and career management experts at Merritt.

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