Looking at projects I’ve done, it’s easy to attach a story to each one. A learning experience in a technology, a leadership role, a support position, a miscommunication, an unmet expectation. It’s easy to look back and pull something valuable out of anything that I can remember. But what about all those experiences of which I have little memory of? Were those wasted like hours of sleep I couldn’t appreciate or did it just build into a story I haven’t yet told, or a story I don’t know how to tell. Do I just leave those scenes on the cutting room floor of my professional or personal narrative? I have so many of them, short struggles you forget by the time the day is over only to relive at a later date with uncomfortable dejavu.
Focused practice is not productive, yet people rarely deride practice as ‘wasted’ effort. The difference is expectation, practice by definition is doing something other than the direct action, in a way to help future efforts. If we could reframe more of ‘wasted’ business efforts as practice or training, then there are innovation and skill benefits for all. The problem with setting this low expectation is that paths that could lead to something may be discarded instead for paths that are more difficult. Again, there must be another tradeoff between the expectations of invested time and the work performed.
Commitment to change is what sets apart the wasted from the lost. Saying the only loss is the one you didn’t learn something from is cutting it short, you can also learn nothing from wins. Happenstance, privileges, and social associations all have such long feedback cycles that it’s nearly impossible to know what to credit. Any attempt at explaining a what-if or a why is truly hypothetical, as much as it is with most nuances of human history. The story is simplified to the point of a parable, written by the victor for their own purposes regardless of its accuracy. I love when I find old management papers that talk up companies that are now struggling. When you compare the things they were praised for against the things they do now, you often find that their strengths haven’t changed, but somehow other factors have overcome this defining feature to make it appear insignificant. Without the ability to replay history and try something different, we’ll never know if it was that important in the first place.
My experience wasting time makes me less afraid of it, and I’m more willing to take risks investing time into projects and teams that others might condemn as doomed. This is not the most efficient approach to learning, but it has forced me to become adept at recovering and reflecting on an ever-moving set of goals. Taking risks requires multiple levels of robustness, and I’ve had to build that into my technological and interpersonal toolkit. Without those robust skills, my plans and reflections would be brittle and narrow. I might be overly sensitive to traits that don’t matter and not focused enough on the ones that do. My only method of communicating these robust lessons in hopes of picking up more is to repeat them and see if something different happens!