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Personal Lessons Learned in 2008 - The Intersection of Past, Present, and Future

Tracking lessons learned has emerged as a crucial element of personal growth, and especially in my life-as-experiment philosophy. It "failure" into "knowledge," and takes the sting out of actions by putting them into perspective. The idea is you made the best choice in the moment (trust yourself here), so how could you know any different? The main point, of course, is to learn from them and improve yourself. This is why I've been tracking them since '05.

With that in mind, let me present my 2008 after action debrief. This is a mix of large and some small, and I thought you might get something my analysis. This is a bit of soul-baring, offered in the spirit of openness and self-improvement. The list is long, so I invite you to scan to see if anything pops out at you.

And no, we're not the only ones tracking these. NASA's Office of the Chief Engineer has a public Lessons Learned database:
NASA's Office of the Chief Engineer and the NASA Engineering Network gives the public access to search the NASA Lessons Learned database system. The NASA Lessons Learned database system is the official, reviewed learned lessons from NASA program and projects. The information provided is a summary of the original driving event, as well as recommendations, which in turn, feed into NASA?s continual improvement via training, best practices, policies and procedures.
Unlike mine, you can search by center, mission, topic, or year. Sweet! (Side note: What industry/field of study does lessons learned come from? Knowledge Management? E.g., Knowledge Management - Learning From Lessons - Ten Steps and Facilitating Knowledge Sharing Through Lessons Learned System.)

As for personal lessons learned reports on the web, I found plenty of general "things you should know" post, but surprisingly few personal ones, including that of Fistful of Talent where he listed people he learned from - nice!

What do you call a project that generated lots of lessons learned? "Experience"
Let me say I respect highly the things you tried in 2008 that led to lessons. I believe it's a privilege to be so new at something that you're learning left and right. Comfort means stasis and lower levels of novelty, and discomfort brings opportunities for growth. Here's to you!

Questions for you

  • Which lessons did you learn in 2008?
  • Do you explicitly track your lessons? If so, how?
  • What process/tools help remind you to apply them?
  • How do you categorize them? What about positive ones? Looking back, most of mine were of the "I wish I hadn't" variety. Any "I'll be doing *that* again" ones?

Personal Lessons From 2008

  • When arranging travel, consider first class. As a consultant, it's a way to meet people at appropriate levels - thanks to Jason Womack for the idea.
  • Bring your lighted pen on vacation! I was bit by this when ideas and feelings were coming hot and heavy one night in a hotel room. Lost!
  • Don't let your assumptions get in the way of new conversations. In this case I took a call from a software developer who wanted my feedback on his program. My initial reaction, once I figured out his reason for calling, was "This isn't a prospective client, so it's a waste of my time." However, I was able to salvage my thinking by realizing it a) said something positive about my reputation (he found me and valued my opinion), and b) that it might be a very good idea to start reviewing programs, both unpaid here on my blog, and paid for advice during development. (For the latter I especially like the creative "idea capture" category of tools.) A second example: I got a call from someone representing herself as from a magazine. My first reaction was "Crud, a telemarketer." Thankfully, instead of hanging up I asked how could I help her. Good thing; she was a reporter for Men's Health Magazine, which eventually lead to a mention in their November issue :-)
  • Don't wait - start now! While talking with a well known author about starting Think, Try, Learn platform (coming soon!) she encouraged me to jump in with both feet. I tell you, she had my number. I enjoy collecting information and analyzing it in detail before making a decision, but in this case (like many in work and life) there never will be enough data for the perfect choice. And deciding early has the additional advantage of action, which leads to much useful data early on.
  • "Why do these things always happen to me?" This comes from Stuart Levine's book Cut to the Chase: and 99 Other Rules to Liberate Yourself and Gain Back the Gift of Time where he compares making mistakes vs. making the same mistake. His technique? He keeps a lessons learned file!
  • Don't offer to help if you don't mean it! When hearing about a new acquaintance's upcoming household move, I said I'd help. His grateful acceptance led immediately to my realizing 1) I didn't really want to help (I'm being brutally honest here), and 2) I wasn't going to follow through. I let it slide without making something of it (i.e., saying I wasn't going to come). This kind of unclear boundaries made me uncomfortable with how I handled it.
  • Don't be *too* quick to edit email replies. One thing I do to help speed up others' email processing time is to edit reply text to remove extraneous content. For back-and-forth conversations this usually means deleting most everything older than the very last reply. This takes time, but is a gift of efficiency (as mentioned) and clarity (makes it clear what I'm responding to). However, I went overboard (once) and realized I'd removed all context. No biggie, but I thought it was interesting.
  • You MUST check your Waiting For list at least every week! I'll admit - I've screwed myself a few times by letting my W/F languish a bit. In this case I got a letter from a gas exploration company re: mineral rights on a teeny parcel of land I'd inherited. The letter was dated, and had asked for a reply within two weeks. It was a complex topic, so I put a call into my cousin who has experience in this, and filed the letter. I made two errors. First, I neglected to note the expiration date of the letter in my calendar. Second, I didn't check W/F frequently enough, having assumed (wrongly) that his reply would re-activate the issue. As a result I received a scary legalese-burdened letter after the two week period announcing my having lost an opportunity to participate. The cost of checking the list: Very low. The stress from not doing so: High.
  • When you give something, just give. I sent to a prospective client an article I thought would be useful, plus a congratulations on a product release, but then spoiled it by making a small pitch at the end. This showed that I might have been thinking more about myself than him, and that my motives might be suspect. I tell people that giving shouldn't be transactional; those are called "deals." Won't be happening again...
  • When recommending someone, make sure they know it was you who helped them. I came across an opportunity when I took a call from someone looking for help different from mine. I was pleased she accepted my offer to research appropriate people in my LinkedIn network. I put out a request, found two (one who I new, another new to me), and recommended them to my contact after conversations with them. A few weeks later I spoke to one of them, and when I brought it up said, "So *you're* the one!" I hadn't told him about doing it. This was one of those too-infrequent times when I could help someone (How To Help People) so why not let them know. At the least it gives them a heads-up.
  • EMPTY YOUR INBOXES DAILY! Like the Waiting For lesson above, this one has bit me hard enough times that I ought to learn. There are times when I let IN build up, and that's dangerous. In this case I looked foolish when I emailed someone about a check we were owed, only to find that very one already in my paper inbox. In another case a client (this is painful) had to email me to ask for something I'd promised. This hurts my reputation and is a waste of time for all involved.
  • Sometimes it's OK to not be cool. As someone relatively new to consulting, there are times when I feel I should play the part of someone more experienced. For example, I took an international call from a prospective client who wanted to fly me to the British Iles. Without editing I responded surprised, then immediately regretted it. After some introspection I realized I didn't want to look inexperienced, and maybe should have acted unsurprised at the prospect of a long (but lucrative) trip. But what's wrong with being new to something? It's actually a privilege - a time when there's a lot of learning and making mistakes (AKA "experience"), but the fear is that by exposing our inexperience we'll lose work. This partly comes from the "there's always someone else" thinking. What's your take on this? I'd like to know.
  • Do you need to get out more? As someone who's comfortable in my own head, my personal social needs are low - family, friends, and occasional work-away-from-home outings into town are fine. However, for business almost all of my sales have come from face-to-face meetings (plenty by phone, though.) There are other reasons to foray, including idea sharing, stimulation, creating opportunities to help others, and plain fun!
  • When talking to a client, know the name of her company's officers. This is the category of due diligence, and there's no excuse for not doing it. Their news, who's in charge, their challenges, etc. Just 10 or 15 minutes of searching can tell you this. In my case I spoke with a prospective client who mentioned a leader, but I didn't know to recognize his name. Later: It was the CEO. If the call catches you unprepared, ask if it's OK to call back in five minutes ("I'd love to chat, just let me wrap up what I'm in the middle of and get right back to you") then get cranking!
  • Stories and colorful language are sticky. Yes, the Heath brothers had it right (see Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, with a nice summary here): While talking with Matthew Scott (my Men@pause interview with him is here) I was struck by his use of stories and understanding of his people (e.g., "the guy in seat 17C"). I don't have a strong connection to popular culture, so I'm at a disadvantage. Doubly so because my niche hasn't fully emerged yet. Suggestions?
  • Always call for action. I learned this around leaving voicemail in particular, but it applies to everything - meetings, conversations, problems, etc. Adding a healthy helping of WIIFM (What's In It For Me) helps motivate. And yes, this is David Allen's "What's the next action" writ large.
  • ASK QUESTIONS! This is probably my #1 lesson, and one that needs steady re-pounding. For prospective clients, this is absolutely essential. My naive initial instinct was to talk about me, how I help, and my process. Wrong order! Get folks talking, and start from there. This is more generally the secret of conversation and helping people to like you. It may require some detective work, but that's *fun*. (Small example: While visiting family over the holidays I had lunch with in-laws I don't particularly connect with, esp. with a particular teenager. I tried valiantly to engage, with poor results. On the ride home I reflected on this to someone who knows the person. She told me this kid is a huge history buff (he only appeared to be interested in sports). I wish I'd discovered that while talking with him!)
  • When scheduling appointments, specify time zone - always and clearly. I do this now out of habit, even for local meetings, and even then people sometimes miss it. Even better, I sometimes list both their and my zones ("12n ET, 9a PT"). I guess using a time-zone aware scheduling tool would help, but I don't like making general blocks available - not yet.
  • Carefully re-read important documents before sending. Yes, it's a no-brainer, but I'm usually a bit spent when writing these (e.g., proposals) and I sometimes skimp by skimming instead of a full re-read. Don't. Related: Always double-check numbers. For example, the should add up :-)
  • Be clear why you're doing something. This is that important connection between lower-level operational activities (e.g., calls, emails, writing, and reading) and being effective. It's not something GTD addressess necessarily well, and it can get lost in the noise, but ultimately we have to look at it. In my case, I have activities that don't make sense, and I had to drop them. This includes some kinds of networking, and writing cards and giving gifts to people who might not lead to consulting work. Oh yes, and Twittering (big topic - see A Late Adopter's Productivity Experiment With Twitter).
  • Blank faces or no questions during presentations means time to stop. Along with running my own business, learning sales and marketing, professional development, and writing I also created from scratch my productivity workshop and learned to present and facilitate seminars. I like it, I'm good at it, and it's a major area of study. For the latter, I found it's easy to get on a roll and forget to monitor how participants are taking in the work. A major indicator is their not asking questions. This is red flag, and needs dealing with immediately. Time for a break? Or maybe you should pause and probe a bit - it's OK to do a short meta discussion - What's going on?, What doesn't make sense?, etc. This doesn't just apply to workshops. If you're sharing an idea during a meeting, you want people to be engaged and thinking seriously about it. Even if they disagree, you'll learn something. Finally, when I'm on the other side of the table, I'm now much more motivated to make myself ask questions, instead of checking the clock to see how long until it's over. Doing this is a gift both to the presenter (hey, she should know) and you (you'll get more out of it).
  • ?? Interestingly, I have some events that result in my feeling like there should be a lesson, but not being able to identify one. What do you call these? For example, during a media interview about a specific tool, I provided some higher level context about the role of technology in being productive (basically, it has a role, but simple is best). This might not have been what the interviewer wanted to hear, but I felt the point was important. Lesson? Not sure. Thoughts?
  • When teaching, "fun" is often more effective than "right." I don't have a pithy way of putting this, but I tend to get into an intense frame of mind when helping someone, mostly people in my family where I'm sadly more likely to be less sensitive than, say, with a client where I'm really on. Unfortunately, being so driven for someone to "get it right" makes the even unpleasant for both of us. Yes there are situations that call for rigor, but not in this case: I was teaching her how to play tennis, and it was frustrating. When I noticed what I was doing and turned it off, wow! I said let's just try to hit the ball back and forth, and we had a great time.
  • Tell potential clients the initial consultation is free. When talking with someone about improving their productivity, I am always happy to talk for 30 minutes as a freebie. I even say that sometimes I can help right there with a tip or idea. However, I found I needed to say this up front so that they weren't uncomfortable talking. This is in the category of maintaining crisp boundaries, and making them explicit. Not sure which ones to clarify? Put yourself in the other's shoes and think which questions would you have in her situation. In this case it's "Should I be asking if this is free?" (Side note: I never worry about giving away information. If all someone needs is a few minutes talking to me, hooray! This pays off in lots of ways - he's helped, I feel good helping, and if he needs further help, I might have a new client.)
  • Balance DIY savings with the relief of hiring a professional. I'm a bruxer. It's bad, I don't like it, and has given me a 60 year old's teeth at 45, but hey - that's my draw. To deal with it I wear a night guard - a plastic fitted appliance that distributes the force of grinding. (I also use other methods like relaxation and massage - different story.) The lesson here came up when I decided to use a home kit for taking the "impression" myself and working directly with the lab that makes these, instead of paying the dentist as a middleman. Mistake. The process of spreading the goop, pushing the form into place, timing, and in general not bollixing it up was extremely stressful. It's in the category of "important + only one chance," and it sucks. Lesson: Pay the dentist, get it done once and right, and be happy. (Update: I just got the third one in the mail, and it's been almost a year since I started the process. Ick! However, I went in treating this like an experiment, and this was the result. "Now you know" is guaranteed.) More generally, when considering a DIY project, try to calculate difficulty and frustration vs. savings. It's hard if you're new to it, so talking first with others is suggested. The multitude of forums on the net make this easier than ever. Good luck!
  • Let sleeping dogs lie. Two cases here. First, in arguments or discussions if a hot topic is not that important to you, consider keeping your trap shut. This is a good one for me, a guy who can be detailed an opinionated. Second, if a problem is minor consider leaving it unaddressed. Case in point: My mountain bike's brake lever was a bit soft (it has hydraulic disk brakes - sweet!) so the ex-engineer perfectionist decided to get them just right. Mistake. It turns out they're finicky to adjust, so I ended up with one little thing problem fixed, another one added (lever modulation), all for a good chunk of change.
  • In conversations, always take a minute to ask about the person herself. In particular I do this when meeting someone new, even if it's not work related. In this case I was talking to a journalist about my work, and I neglected to ask about his story. This was double unsatisfying because I like learning about people's jobs and lives. It's part of why I love my work so much.
  • Consider dropping the tickler file. Getting radical here, but I've stopped sharing the tickler file in my workshops. It was confusing to people, took time to explain (less is more), and most people don't need one. Instead use the "calendar + holding file" method - details here in Some Common GTD Questions, With Answers.
  • The weekly review is important when starting your practice. For every 1:1 desk-side client I follow up for at least a month with weekly phone calls. During these we talk about challenges, answer questions, continuing customizing and tweaking, and generally build momentum. Because this is a vulnerable time where old habits can re-assert, do not omit weekly reviewing. I also check that the meta project ("New productivity system is up-and-running") action of clearing backlogs is making progress. (Chunking is helpful: Process the next 20 emails in the "Backlog" folder, or spend 15 minutes on the next paper backlog stack. Note: When working together I guarantee we'll clear all your inboxes. Depending on the volume this might entail creating "backlog" folders, with their accompanying "clear backlog" project(s))
  • Practice memorizing names. This is crucial for developing relationships, and I continue to struggle with it: in the heat of the moment I forget to apply the steps that I know work. As Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends & Influence People puts it:
    If you want to win friends, make it a point to remember them. If you remember my name, you pay me a subtle compliment; you indicate that I have made an impression on you. Remember my name and you add to my feeling of importance.
    Here's a nice summary:

    1. Make sure you hear a name clearly and can pronounce it correctly.
    2. Ask the person to repeat his or her name if necessary.
    3. Get a distinct impression of the person - note physical characteristics, listen to the person's voice, try to "visualize" the personality.
    4. Repeat the person's name to yourself several times to get it fixed in your mind.
    5. Use the person's name several times during your conversation.
    6. Associate the name with a word picture that's colorful, action-oriented, even exaggerated.


Reader Comments (10)

Interesting post, but it's too long! I had to open the comments box just to write my replies as I read. :)

"You MUST check your Waiting For list at least every week!"
I'd go as far as to say every day. It's part of my daily check-in, and as you mentioned, it's very low cost.

"Sometimes it's OK to not be cool."
When consulting in the past, and doing some other work recently, I've found that it's best to be honest about where you are. "I'm still learning the ropes on this, but here's how I see it." I think there's a bit of a reciprocity effect. They feel like you've shared something special with them, and they're perhaps more amenable to working openly with you. If their reaction is more negative, you may not want to be working with them anyway.

"When scheduling appointments, specify time zone - always and clearly."
Try whenisgood.net. It has time zone support built in, and in an intuitive way.

'When teaching, "fun" is often more effective than "right."'
I need to learn how to do this with family as well. It's interesting how we tend to take such relationships for granted and be more rude than we would to non-family.

"Practice memorizing names."
I'm sure you're aware of this, but just to give it my vote, one technique is to use the person's name three times shortly after learning it. Another key point -- if you've already forgotten before you can do that, particularly if you just met a group of people, ask them for their name again. You're admitting you forgot, but showing that you care enough to fix it. If you say something like, "I'm sorry, I'm so bad with names, but I'm working on it," (both true for me) usually it breaks the ice a little, and they'll admit they have similar problems.

January 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

A great post, very meaty and specific. So now, this blog post is the final repository of sifting your misc. lessons from your text file? I find drafting a narrative of some kind tends to help me link disparate points together so I'm remembering one long thing rather than several small things that appear to be disconnected.

January 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown

Wow - combining our natural affinity for storytelling with the need to remember lessons. Of course! How do you do this? Do you sit down and write it out, or just mentally construct one by scanning? Does it have to follow logically, or do you keep it loose? Care to share any? Excited. :-)

Thanks for the compliment, and for reading. Much appreciated.

January 19, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

You sure learned a lot! I just started to keep a business journal and writing and major decisions I made, how I made them, or just thoughts. I find it helpful, not only to get it out of my head and on to paper, but to look back and see how I can improve and what worked and didn't work.

January 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Walzman

What a great post Matt! Sometimes you are pure inspiration. You asked what we think about being experienced/not being experienced, looking cool or uncool. In clinical psychology, the practice part of it, its better to be experienced when working with people who really have nothing wrong with them, they just want life coaching although they may not know that initially. If you're experienced you can figure that out quickly, and pass it on to the client. "Hey there is nothing wrong with you, you just want someone to bounce ideas off of, you want some life coaching." Someone like that is hell for my students who feel inadequate until they get some experience.

That said, the most difficult cases we find in community mental health clinics are lucky when they get a new student as their psychotherapist. They would not be so lucky to fall into my care. The new student has hopes for even the most difficult cases, and as a supervisor I have hopes for the student and the patient. I know that the inexperienced therapist will work unbelievably hard, will try and try again, will most often take well to my supervision/ideas. The inexperienced don't expect to make money doing what they're doing, they expect to learn and become experienced. I however, would get irritated with slow progress, I would feel that I was wasting my time and not getting paid for it. I would not feel the same drive to put in earnest effort as my students. Students are inexperienced but heroic, and if supervised, they do much the same thing as I would, but with greater energy. So maybe this doesn't translate to your question. But if you were training tomorrow's productivity coaches, and they were coaching people who could not begin to afford a high end coach --hey this might be a good idea, you should take on some students and have them work with college students, high school students, lower level office workers etc--their lack of experience would help to fuel their efforts.


January 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLynnOC

> What a great post Matt! Sometimes you are pure inspiration.

Thanks a ton, Lynn. Much appreciated.

> its better to be experienced when working with people who really have nothing wrong with them

That's really interesting, Lynn. I'm trying to wrap my head around the implications for my practice...

> The new student has hopes for even the most difficult cases

Very good point. When my wife and I were getting our massage therapist certifications we were given one of the more challenging service assingments - patients at an institution with severe physical disabilities. I remember working with someone in perpetual fetal position with very few communication abilities. I made sure I had permission from family before working with him. I basically just used health touch, thinking the contact - one of the most basic human traits - might help. [Reflects a moment.] Not sure where that's going - maybe if I had more experience I might have ... not given up, but maybe tried something more complex or structured?

> I know that the inexperienced therapist will work unbelievably hard, will try and try again, will most often take well to my supervision/ideas. The inexperienced don't expect to make money doing what they're doing, they expect to learn and become experienced.

Certainly *you* know this. I wonder what the clients' perspectives are around this. Maybe they're happy because the work is zero or low cost? (I don't know in this case, I'm just thinking about fair value.)

> I however, would get irritated with slow progress, I would feel that I was wasting my time and not getting paid for it. I would not feel the same drive to put in earnest effort as my students.

I suspect you're being a bit hard on yourself - you impressed the heck out of me.

> But if you were training tomorrow's productivity coaches, and they were coaching people who could not begin to afford a high end coach --hey this might be a good idea, you should take on some students and have them work with college students, high school students, lower level office workers etc--their lack of experience would help to fuel their efforts.

I think that's a lovely idea. Thanks for that, and for your comment.

January 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hey Matthew, just found this reply you made to me. Yes, I'm the founder of it. would be happy to discuss it with you, just email me at mikew@zmive.com and thanks for letting me know about the error. It's still in beta version, so I'm doing a lot of tweaking and updates, glad you liked it!


February 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Walzman

this is a *HUGE* body of knowledge! who wants to work on an ontology of best practices?!? it sounds like NASA has developed some technology for this already! not only do you, Matt, have lots of wisdom to share, I can see that others are putting more best practices (and responses and opinions) into the pot too!

how can we distill all this into something digestible, living and breathing?

thanks, Matt, for putting yourself out there!

September 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChinarut

I appreciated your comment - got me looking back at all this good stuff.

October 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
[old comment that didn't import]

Hey Brock! How's parenthood?

>Interesting post, but it's too long! I had to open the comments box just to write my replies as I read. :)

Yes, I completely agree and I'm sorry about that. I was shooting for a once-a-year rather comprehensive sharing and analysis. Yet another good example of non-traditional blogging here. Thanks very much for wading through it and commenting, Brock.

> check your Waiting For list daily

That's a great practice. I usually hedge a little when teaching this by saying at least weekly, but daily is better. It depends on how fast things need to be moving ahead. Low cost is a good point.

> it's best to be honest about where you are .. They feel like you've shared something special with them

I agree. I wonder if we can look at honesty and inexperience being on separate axes... I'm always honest - that's nonnegotiable. Yet do I need to highlight my inexperience? As usual you've made me think, Brock.

> If their reaction is more negative, you may not want to be working with them anyway.

Definitely. Regarding the international client, he was very clear about needing someone senior, and I was up front about not qualifying. He appreciated this, we hung up, but before we did he offered to keep me in mind for the future. I'm fine with that transaction. Do I want to be everything to everyone? Sure - it's part of wanting to please. But clear honest communication trumps all.

> Try whenisgood.net. It has time zone support built in, and in an intuitive way.

Thanks! Goes onto my list of tools, including:

o http://www.timetomeet.info/
o http://www.meetomatic.com/calendar.php
o http://www.doodle.com/main.html
o http://whenisgood.net/
o http://www.presdo.com/
o http://www.meetingwizard.com/
o http://www.timebridge.com/home.php
o http://www.jifflenow.com/
o http://www.tungle.com/Home/
o http://blueprintrd.pbwiki.com/Meeting%20Scheduling
o http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/Directory/Tools/calendar.html

> use the person's name three times shortly after learning it...ask them for their name again...

Excellent tips and points. A big part of my challenge is monitoring my internal meta-conversation during the introduction and remembering to apply these ideas. Actually, the moment of introduction is a kind of /transition/ - see [ Transitions: A Secret Ingredient To Getting Things Done? | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/12/transitions-secret-ingredient-to.html ] Cool.

Another one you reminded me of is to assume the other has the same trouble, and say my name if there's even the slightest chance that they don't recall it. Most people say "Of course, Matt - I wouldn't forget," but why not make it easy for folks? :-) I think this came from [ Never Eat Alone | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0385512058?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeA ].

Thanks again, Brock.
October 6, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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