Jennifer Tapias Derch
We all need the capacity to learn from our experiences. This is not just learning from reading books or attending classes, but rather from interacting day-to-day with others. These experiences and the way we interpret them become part of our identity. I like to think of this as becoming your own playwright, composer, or storyteller.
There is much research demonstrating that people have selective retention, remembering their experiences in ways that they like and that are rarely challenged by others. This can be detrimental, since they may learn no meaningful lessons—or more problematically, may learn the wrong lessons. Let me share four habits that I’ve found useful in helping people process their life’s experiences.
The first habit: Pay attention to endings
Endings have been on my mind these days, as I am retiring after 60 years on the Booth faculty.
I recently watched a recording of a performance from the iconic Royal Albert Hall in London of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music. The final six measures, with just harp and violin, lasted for almost a minute and were played very softly, almost to the point of a whisper. After the music stopped, the conductor held his arms high without moving. The audience of more than 5,000 remained totally silent for another 30 seconds before he slowly lowered his arms and the concertgoers began to applaud.
Compare this ending with the closure of a symphony by Charles Ives. Though music was a sort of side project to his successful career in the insurance business, his legacy is as the first great American composer. His Symphony No. 2 ends with one of the most dissonant chords that has ever been written. Eleven of the 12 possible pitches of the musical scale are used simultaneously. Many see this one chord as announcing his transition from a respectable composer to one who created music that was far more exploratory, experimental, and atonal.
I once thought about offering a course on businesses endings—to dissect and discuss what precipitated failures, acquisitions, or decisions simply to wind down. Almost everyone I mentioned this idea to told me that no one would sign up. Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, in her recent book on the science of motivation, explains why this would be the case. There is, in modern society, asymmetric information tipped toward good news, she writes. Conversations about successes far exceed those about failures. We prefer to share our good news with others, whether on résumés that tout achievements rather than incomplete attempts, or in social media posts that display happy photos far more than sad ones. This can lead to the erroneous belief that successes far outnumber failures. Nevertheless, a class that describes exciting new ventures and strategies would inevitably attract more interest than one about the ventures and strategies that didn’t take off or outlived their usefulness.
Being in the right place at the right time may have as much or even more to do with a positive outcome than our assumed brilliance.
A statement attributed to Seneca, a philosopher of ancient Rome, reads: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Endings and beginnings belong together in our minds, even though that may seem paradoxical. What do I celebrate from the experience that is ending? What lessons have I learned that will carry over to the new beginning? Should I pack a lot or travel light?
There is also a question of dealing with the paradox of holding onto a true identity while at the same time moving toward one that is somewhat different or even contradictory. A 2015 graduate of Chicago Booth and a lover of poetry, Rafi Nulman, sent me a poem by Mary Oliver that captures this challenge.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
There will be many endings as you change jobs within the same organization, or move from one organization or country to another. I hope you won’t cut short the needed attention to each of these endings in your professional and personal life transitions.
A second habit: Research your experiences
The long journey ahead will include variance—some positive, and some much less so.
We can draw mistaken conclusions from positive outcomes. Being in the right place at the right time may have as much or even more to do with an outcome than our assumed brilliance. In other situations, we may pay little attention to positive feedback from others due to an overactive inner critic that keeps us from more fully displaying our unique and valuable qualities.
When negative outcomes do occur, as they surely will, we are prone to ignore them or come up with simple one-variable explanations, such as “That other guy was the problem!” We also dismiss negative feedback all too readily. Fishbach devotes an entire chapter in her book to the value of learning from our failures as well as from the failures of others.
The current chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, gave a convocation address to his son’s ninth-grade class in which he told the graduates “I wish you bad luck.” He mentioned that he hoped they’d be lonely from time to time so that they would not take friends for granted—or that they would be treated unfairly in order to know the value of justice. He went on with other examples of the benefits of bad luck, so that the graduates could see there would be messages in their misfortunes.
Early in my career, I wrote difficult multiple-choice final exams to test whether students had done their homework. I looked for details and sometimes obscure facts (even in footnotes) that would be challenging to remember. One year, I ran into a dedicated student who had taken the class and asked him what he thought about the exam, expecting applause. After a long pause, he replied, “I expected more of you than that test.” Those eight words captured for me a painful truth: this test had more to do with my need to display what I thought was required of a legitimate University of Chicago faculty member than my need to deliver a meaningful learning experience. I had never asked students for feedback about the exam, operating instead from an untested hypothesis that giving a tough multiple-choice test would strengthen my credibility as a teacher. I was focused more on my desire to cast myself in a favorable light than on my students and their experience. The test wasn’t helping them better understand the material, and in fact, it may have been doing the opposite by distracting them from what was most deserving of their focus.
That was the last year I gave a multiple-choice exam. The feedback from my former student pushed me to embrace my inner scientist, who stands willing to experiment and test assumptions, and who inspired me to stop trying to be someone I was not and to instead be myself and recognize my own strengths. That is a habit I now encourage: put your inner scientist to work researching your experiences so you learn more of the right lessons.
Each of us is our own playwright. We start with a story willed to us by the family and culture in which we were raised.
A third habit: Create pauses
Getting away from the noise that so often surrounds us is critical in order to reflect on our experiences. A number of people have said to me that their lives seem to be a never-ending repetition of “push, push, and push,” with no time to reflect.
There is a quote that I like that is often attributed to the renowned pianist Artur Schnabel: “The notes I handle are no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”
Embracing these pauses is a learned skill that must be practiced so that it becomes habitual. There is evidence that stepping away from work on a task and creating space through an unrelated experience can help your performance on the original task when you return to it. Spaces might involve taking a walk, reading a book, listening to music, or talking with a stranger. They can vary in length, but they need to be intentional so that you’re not thinking about the “next notes” that need to be played.
To what extent do you now have, or will you have in the future, such pauses in your work and personal life? Do you have a sufficient number of them, allowing you to bring forth your artistry in whatever task or challenge, small or large, that you face?
A fourth and final habit: Pursue meaningful outcomes
We must grapple with the question of what constitutes a meaningful outcome along our journey. What’s meaningful to you connects with the concept of the Best Self: fulfilling your potential, as informed by your core values. The late psychologist Carl Rogers called the Best Self our tendency to become our potentialities. It is not about being happy or achieving a bucket list; it is a personal journey to love yourself, seek beauty, and, ultimately, find fulfillment. It is continually flexing, expanding, and contracting as you move toward becoming a fully formed human being.
Each of us is our own playwright. We start with a story willed to us by the family and culture in which we were raised. Then, at some point, we consider whether we want to make modifications. Too often, we allow the original script to guide us, and do simply what it has deemed we should or should not do. But you might want to make some edits—either on your own or with a collaborator such as a trusted friend, mentor, or coach—and utilize more of your unique talents. You may encounter some resistance from others, but if you truly believe that your Best Self deserves more time on stage, you will remain patient, keep making those changes, and work toward outcomes that you value.
A distinguished academic who wrote a great deal on this topic was the late James G. March. As an MBA student at Dartmouth, I spent hours in the library reading a dense but thought-provoking book called Organizations, by March and the late Herbert Simon, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. March also wrote poetry in his spare time, including a poem about what success meant to him. When I read it, I felt that he and I were kindred spirits.
There is a long tradition of explaining outcomes in personal terms, for example by ascribing success to a “good” leader—an individual, rather than a group. One downside of this is that when the individual in question leaves the situation, it creates a void and makes future outcomes less certain.
It is my belief that if leaders want to have real impact, they need to create an arena of sorts—be it a product, project, class, or even a piece of art—that inspires and allows others to bring forth their own ideas. Think of jazz composers who have written and performed original pieces of music. Long after these composers are gone, other musicians can bring their talents to the same scores and make them their own. They will be followed by yet others who can continue to create, through interpretation and improvisation, within the original scores. The initial composition functions like a room into which many people can enter and find inspiration to renovate or redecorate. The room is a vessel for creativity, which flourishes within boundaries.
I am often given credit for having created LEAD, an experiential course at Booth in leadership development. The fact is that I haven’t been involved in LEAD for many years, but what I did was establish some parameters for what has turned into a successful program. I designed a class that all students would take in their first quarter at Booth, then some would facilitate the next year. But LEAD has grown, matured, and improved in the years since it was created, and that is due to the involvement and input of many people. This bodes well for the future of the program.
Narcissism is not inherently bad. Many leadership roles are hard, so it’s important to have some degree of self-worth. At the same time, how much should you have? Too much self-focus can get in the way of genuine outward engagement, which is also needed.
All of this is to say that achieving a meaningful outcome can be emotionally difficult and will require humility. In his poem titled “Success,” March suggests that the ultimate version of it is doing one’s job right, and not leaving a trace. Let me share his poem.
No one needs him
After he’s gone
No one who stays
Depends on him,
If he has done it right;
No one asks
Why flowers grow,
Or how a summer ends;
Or notices long
That he has gone, quietly
Into the dark.
Harry L. Davis is the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Creative Management at Chicago Booth. This essay is adapted from the speech he gave in June at Booth’s Graduation Ceremony at the 537th Convocation of the University of Chicago. It is his fifth graduation speech given at Booth.
- Ayelet Fishbach, Get It Done, New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2022.
- James G. March, Pleasures of the Process, London: Poets’ and Painters’ Press, 1980.
- Mary Oliver, American Primitive, New York: Back Bay Books, 1983.
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