# 14: Experience Is…?
Story behind the Passage
Who would have thought that I can choose a passage that is so brief? Given that all my previous choices were much longer, this is a welcome exception. As you will see, however, length says nothing about depth. When I decided to write about The One Minute Manager today, I opened the book by putting my thumb between pages with a dog-ear (that is my sign that something interesting is waiting…). When I saw this short quotation, it was immediately clear that I would not have to search for any other passage in the book. It resonated perfectly with something that is gaining more and more prominence in a world in which change is a constant and time is a luxury — at least for the hungry and foolish ones who are trying to reinvent the very meaning of technological innovation for society but sometimes run the risk of getting lost on this journey.
The One Minute Manager was first published in 1990. It is a classic among management books. Yes, I did promise to write about startup stories but by now it has become clear to me that only choosing startup stories would not create value. Why? Because talking about ‘content’ (I hate that word) which startups already talk about all day might ‘fit in’ well and it might even be found easily (findability is a keyword in the digital age of information overload — right?). But I am not a person who fits in well anywhere and neither are the books that I choose. Hence, the value of choosing books that seem to be “old-fashioned” and from a pre-digital business era are exactly the ones that create value for the young generation of founders. At least, this is my approach to motivating learning from stories across borders.
The One Minute Manager to me is a master piece because the authors succeeded in packaging their wisdom by using a compelling story frame and simple but striking metaphors. As you know by now, I am not going to discuss the core ideas in detail. I bet, you can find them quickly on plenty of websites. I would, of course, recommend reading the book to learn the ABC of efficient management on roughly 130 pages. Whatever you decide to do, my focus today will be on this one quote that puts experience first.
“Experience is not what happens to you…” How strange is that? Is experience not usually thought of as this nice stream of events that simply come to you and you can just witness and consume? As always when I am looking at passages very closely, I just consulted my good old American Heritage Dictionary. It says that the Latin origin of the word includes the meaning “to try.” This already tells one that there is an active component involved; that experience has to be “done” in a way. But all this starts getting very boring, I think. Let us make it a bit more tangible and easier to digest.
Today I found out that someone whom I just started working with used to be a soldier in the German armed forces before his management career. That is not that unusual because the German Bundeswehr operates two universities in Germany, one in the north and one in the south of the nation, and people who decide to start the career of an officer (you commit yourself to serving in the army for at least 12 years) can study business, engineering, and many other subjects there. After that, some decide to stay and climb ladder of the military to the very top. Others decide to start a or rather return to a civil life and take management positions in industrial companies or elsewhere.
The reason why I am now writing about former soldiers in the context of “experience” is because just a few months ago, I was in touch with another former soldier who had chosen a similar path rather recently. He was a soldier in the marine division, spent a lot of time abroad during his service, and then decided to start a career in the manufacturing industry. I very much enjoyed this conversation with him because the things he observed with respect to communication in large organizations directly emerged from his previous experience in the army. When you are in a battle situation — even if you just practice this scenario — there is no time for unnecessary ego issues. You communicate clearly in a way that the goal of the mission gets achieved which means that everybody needs to have a clear picture of what this goal is and what his/her role is (also see my post on the “Commander’s Intent” on this). If you waste your time with corporate bullshit play and narcissistic manipulation, you will for sure not survive your assignment— and I mean literally survive.
Now you might go like: “Gee, does she have a crush on soldiers or why is she so into these guys? Is it that important how some soldiers think about leadership and communication in companies?” Well, there we go, this is where experience comes in. No, not in the way you might think now… Let me explain.
In 2008, I spent a few months as an intern at the German embassy in Yemen. I had a wonderful boss who right at the beginning gave me the liberty of choosing my own projects, as long as I did some daily tasks that were compulsory, of course. As someone who loves following her inner compass to explore whatever seems exciting, I decided to focus on three major topic areas: education, women’s rights, and water. These were not some topics, these were among the most pressing ones when it came to understanding what went wrong in the country (nothing has changed about this, unfortunately, up to the present day and almost everything continues to go wrong there. As we also know, this is hardly ever the fault of the respective country itself but that really is a different story…). I got to do research on these issues and write reports. But where are the soldiers in this story and how does experience come in?
During my time there, I had the chance of accompanying the soldiers on a trip they did to the north of the country to check on the progress of some projects. I will not write about the details but the point was: These days together with the troops changed my life — as did the entire period of my stay. And I hung out quite frequently with the guys from the military. Of course, I was not a member of the army but I felt a bit like that. Even though I was not wearing a uniform, had no military training, and knew (or at least assumed) that I did not have the proper personality for this kind of career — except for disipline maybe — I somehow started feeling a deep connection to the soldiers and their families. In fact, I am still in touch with the commander once in a while and he remains one of the people that I deeply admire for his leadership skills, humanism, and humor.
You know, Yemen is quite a hot spot in the region — in a sad way. We already had the ‘civil’ war going on in the north and the country already ranked among the poorest in the world — and I mean the poorest — with more than 50% of the population living below the povery line. No, I am not going to write a ‘travel’ report now or a political commentary. What I am trying to get at is that accompanying a military operation in a country like this makes you see the army and its function from a new perspective. And “the army,” that remains an abstract political term for many of us today, consists of people, after all, i.e., soldiers like the ones that I got to meet and learn from.
The only reason why I had the privilege of sharing some of their experiences was because I actively decided to do so. Nobody offered this to me. I asked for the tasks that I got to engage with and when I heard that the trip was coming up, I asked whether I could join. Of course, they had to agree but without the question, there would have been no “yes.” Are you getting it? The experience that I was able to gain — that I made happen to me — was a result of my initiative. I am not saying that to emphasize that I am the queen of “personal experience design” or whatever. I am mentioning it because it is something that we tend to forget quite often — both when it comes to positive and negative events. We often say: “I was just lucky… this or that just happened out of the blue …” No, most of the time, things do not just happen to us, we make them happen. But the sentence above wants to tell us even more about the active role we play in turning experiences into value.
“It’s what you do with what happens to you.” Now, I am a bit afraid that I might repeat myself with respect to what I said about the post on “Paradigm Shifts” from a few days ago. Today, I mean it in a very straight-forward way as it applies to business decisions — especially in the startup environment. For turning experiences into something sustainable, something of value, something that sticks to you for the rest of your life, you need to reflect on them. And reflection takes time and quite a bit of energy, even though you might not expect or notice this at first. This is also what people who start working with a professional coach often state. The exhausting part is not the time you spend with the coach, it is the time between the meetings. Like the athlete, whose muscles ache and grow in-between the training sessions. Or just think of music:
“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.” — Artur Schnabel
Reflection is only one part of digesting experience as something that you — most of the time — actively pushed (the Buddhists would start talking about kharma as the law of cause and effect — I am not going into this now). The tricky part is turning reflection into action. In order to do this, your thoughts on previous experiences need to get integrated into your whole being. Only then can you act from inside out, based on your inner compass (hey, that reminds me of another very helpful book that is all about the inner compass and how to find it — will write about it soon…). This is the only way in which experience can have real impact in the world.
As I mentioned in a brief intro session with other founders at a startup hub yesterday, I feel quite sad or rather worried about a certain dynamic that I witness being a somewhat more distanced player in the game. So many inspiring and highly intelligent people in the startup world already have so much experience — both in life and in business. They would not be where they are as founders, had they not already turned their experience into action. After all, people who never dare making new and unexpected experiences hardly ever decide to become entrepreneurs, right? But what I am sad about is the fact that then, quite often, they get into this ‘robot mode,’ as I call it. Everything is so exciting and fun and the peers are so creative and energetic that they turn on the ultimate action mode — but they completely forget to reflect, they forget the pauses between the notes that will turn single sounds into music.
If these pauses, the moments of reflecting on events, simply get erased from the calendar because that calendar is so packed with meetings and “action items” — the power of experience that was there in the first place, and that could potentially be multiplied due to the steep learning curve of entrepreneurship, disappears. What remains is the image of the hamster in the startup wheel who — that is different from the corporate hamster image — runs faster and faster not because he is a tiny cog in the machine and others make him run but because he has built his own wheel based on adrenaline and the hunger for more experiences, more learning, and, above all, faster growth.
I am aware that all this might sound very old-fashioned but I am convinced that less is more when it comes to this race for experiences. What one does with one’s experiences has no linear relationship to how many experiences one ‘collects.’ It is a matter of consciously experiencing events, of seeing their depth and of awareness about the place of these experiences within the bigger picture of one’s life and the larger business world. Consequently, I do hope that every founder finds his/her own formula of input and output, i.e., the connection between experience and action, as it is connected by reflection.
Lastly, on a slightly different note, I am convinced that experience in the sense of practical learning is currently gaining more and more relevance again. In a (Western) world that has been focusing very much on theory and sophistication, the immanent experimental character of experience is pushing the boundaries of the comfort zones of established decision makers. Still, it is not self-evident that different experiences automatically lead to different outcomes. Again, “what you do with what happens to you” is your choice. No dictionary can tell you what experience exactly means to you — you have to define it yourself.
1) Dou you ever read “management literature”? Why/not?
2) What do you say to people who would claim that the quotation is simply stupid because people cannot control “what happens” to them?
3) How can you practically allocate more time for reflecting on your daily experiences in your calendar?
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