5 Ways to Survive the “Learning Curve”
We have all been there, starting a new job, implementing a new program, launching a new business. Everything is humming along fine, nervousness aside, until suddenly it becomes clear something has gone terribly wrong. And you are responsible. Starting something new can be scary and when the inevitable problems arise, you can go from nervous to full of self-doubt and embarrassment, especially when you are the one at fault. Yet, the fact that there is an actual, researched term, should signal to us all that mistakes are a normal part of doing anything new. The “learning curve” refers to increases in someone’s knowledge as their experience increases. Surviving those initial bumps on the learning curve can be tough but a few easy strategies can help you move past them and thrive.
1. Build a trusted network
To quote the Beatles we “get by with a little help from [our] friends.” Whether business partners, colleagues, or professional mentors, having people you can rely on for honest feedback and insight is essential to moving through problems. Your support network should include people who are supportive but whom you trust to be honest. Yes, we all need cheerleaders in our lives but people who will only tell us “it is ok, it was not your fault” are not going to be particularly helpful in learning from real professional struggles. You need people who are able to provide you with perspective, putting the problem or situation into context, helping you work through both the logistical realities and the feelings involved. As a person who is fortunate enough to have three partners who fit that bill and a few more colleague/mentors beyond that, I can tell you will be grateful for them time and time again.
2. Differentiate between errors and skills gap
Your trusted network can help you gain perspective on the situation but even without them, you need to learn to look at mistakes or problems that arise and fairly assess whether or not the issue was caused by an oversight on your part OR whether it was genuinely a lack of skill. Errors are often caused by a gap in knowledge due to limited experience which happen more frequently in the early phases of the learning curve. Whether you are moving too quickly or you do not know what you do not know because the process is new to you, simple errors are generally easier to fix and learn from as your experience grows. However, finding that the culprit is actually that you lack a particular skill the task requires does not mean all is lost. Not possessing a particular skill still leaves you with the options to learn required skills or to look to your team for those that may be able to fill that gap. Even if the skills needed is something you truly cannot learn or outsource, knowing that and making the necessary adjustments to your career, project, or business can save you time and frustration down the line.
3. Learn from your mistakes
Yes, this seems obvious but sometimes we can be in such a rush to move past the situation that we may miss the opportunity to truly learn from it. Embracing this strategy goes beyond fixing the problem to include really thinking it through from a variety of angles and asking tough questions to extract all the lessons possible. Are there relationship or behavior dynamics you have not considered? Were there warning signs that you missed or ignored? Does a similar problem seem to arise in other areas? Yes, there is such a thing as overanalyzing a situation, but when it is a business or organization for which you are responsible, spending a little extra time asking deeper questions can avoid future headaches.
4. Prevention is the best intervention: establish an evaluation process
A great strategy to avoid overanalyzing or wasting time on a problem is to develop a process for evaluating the issue and learning from it. One of several terms for this process is “lessons learned.” As a data management nerd I advocate for incorporating “lessons learned” as a part of your regular evaluation process. Your programs or projects will benefit from a structured process in which you ask yourself and your team a set of questions at the beginning, middle, and end of the project and at any other point in between that makes sense. Questions such as:
- “What barriers or issues do we foresee?”
- “What personality styles match best with our client(s) and who on our team posses those?”
- “How is our progress deviating from our expectations and why?”
These and other questions can guide your learning throughout your project and reduce the number of issues that arise and the anxiety they can produce by building in an expectation of learning rather than one of perfection.
5. Acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on
Last but not least, this strategy acknowledges that we are human beings that are affected on an emotional level by the bumps along the path of the learning curve. Avoiding those feelings is rarely beneficial, but neither is being consumed by them. Yes, making mistakes is embarrassing. Yes, we may question our abilities when something goes wrong and, frankly, so might those around us. No, those mistakes do not have to define us. Nobody is perfect, that we know. What we often fail to remember in those challenging times is that those with the greatest success at learning from their mistakes are also able to move on from them. If we want others to trust that our errors do not reflect our skill, then acknowledging our mistakes is the way to build that trust. Lying about them or ignoring the problem will not make you look faultless; it will make you look clueless, or worse, untrustworthy. Once we have admitted our mistake, focusing on making the situation better and learning from it can both help us regain our confidence and inspire confidence in us from others. Continuing to beat yourself up long after the fact only undermines your confidence and distracts you from your purpose.
Whether used independently or jointly, these strategies can help you withstand the storms that inevitably come our way as we venture into new jobs, projects, or businesses. Many strategies require some thought and planning, but none of the time you spend on them will be wasted. The only wasted time will come from thinking you are immune to the “learning curve” and then finding yourself unprepared to deal with it.