Labeling A Mistake A Lesson Means You Will Probably Not Learn From It

The funny thing about an honest person who actually believes nonsense is that they are telling the truth when they are lying to people.

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In many of the leadership books and blogs, the notion of mistakes comes up a lot. To be a leader, you need to take action and any time you take action, there is a chance that this action will not lead to the desired outcome. Mistakes are a big part of learning and the best leaders in any industry tend to make more than their fair share of them.

It makes a lot of sense to regard any mistake as lesson. This will make them more powerful because it will reduce the long term consequences of the action. Letting go of a poor decision is easier when we know that we are less likely to make the same decision again in the future.

But I question the validity of the assumption that actual learning has occurred when one habitually label mistakes lessons, given the apparent tendency for people to do the same things over and over again. What may actually be occurring is more akin to a karmic cleanse vs. a real lesson. It is easier to call something a lesson and to state that the outcome was the result of a lack of knowledge / experience than to really dig into what happened and to accept that you had the resources to think the thing through and still chose to act impulsively.

To be clear, I’m not talking about innovation here. Making something new that performs its function perfectly necessitates it having been made and NOT perform that function perfectly more than once. Each previous iteration was not a mistake because the inventor could not have known better. Each version is a lesson that builds upon all of the lessons from before. The outcome was not a result of having information / resources and choosing not to use them.

What I am talking about are all of the times when taking a few minutes to think things through beforehand would likely have revealed a lot of the blind spots or things that did not immediately come to mind.

For example, I used to say “it takes 21 days to learn a new skill and make it a habit” without any sense of irony. I had heard it when I started working at a gym and it was something that we were encouraged to say to new or potential members to let them know that changing course to move towards a more healthful life requires some effort but that the effort doesn’t really need to be sustained (3 weeks was all that was needed before the body would do it on its own). The lack of irony was due to my missing the fact that I had created the habit of saying that saying in about 30 seconds.

Some behaviors will require 21 days, others 1, some 261, etc. I was wrong. I wasn’t learning a lesson, I was making a mistake every time I lazily repeated a simple phrase that served a sales purpose. It turns out that I was lying because I should have known better than to repeat something so trite and catchy. If I had taken the required 3 moments to consider what was going on in the context of my own life I would have realized that 21 days was not an average, was not an actual and did not reflect how things progressed in my own life. When I was learning to become a cycling instructor, I started practicing every day the day after the training workshop ended; so less than 48 hours to create the habit – I didn’t need to convince myself to practice, I was excited to do it. When I decide to wake-up earlier in the morning, it takes me about a week of deliberately getting out of bed at 5:15 am before I find myself walking around at 5:16 am without a desire to push snooze and stay in bed. The habit of mindfulness as it applies to my baseline level of anxiety has yet to full take hold, even after years of knowing that I can be an anxious person and will seek out the experiences that will create anxiety. My journeys down the rabbit hole though are much shorter than before but I am still starting them.

On some level I knew I was talking nonsense. However, it was my job to sell gym memberships so I just kept saying the line over and over again. I got good at it. Prospective members believed me and I think I started to believe me.

The funny thing about an honest person who actually believes nonsense is that they are telling the truth when they are lying to people. Someone who is that convinced that life will be completely different in 3 weeks is able to convince other people of that “fact.” There I was, pouring out sincerity, stoking the flames of hope that their future would be better and all it would take was a few weeks of effort before the body just did the work willingly. I closed a lot of sales because I believed what I was saying, and that made it easier for the people on the other side of the table to believe it too.

It didn’t take long, about 22 days after my first sale, before the evidence began to grow that my silly little phrase wasn’t true. Over a few months it became evident that I wasn’t going to be able to excel at selling gym memberships for much longer because it was clear that people have a baseline and it can take months and maybe years for it to be updated.

I moved on to management, then personal training, and finally fitness class instruction growing further away from the notion that “it takes 21 days to learn a new skill and make it a habit.” For me, selling gym memberships for that club was like convincing someone to convert all of their dollars into the currency of a country that doesn’t exist anymore – it was something that can be done but was probably going to be a mistake and when it came time to correct it, the exchange rate would ensure that the customer lost money. Going from zero to a sustained full speed, which is what is required when someone makes the decision to transform their body composition, is going to require that they create a bunch of new behaviors, put a lot of effort into continuing to do them, and endure whatever sense of loss going without the things that got them to the position of needing to change their body composition in the first place causes. It is possible, but for almost everyone it is going to SUCK.

And that is the power of labeling a mistake a lesson in the fitness industry. There is no cost to it, so doing it eliminates the incentive to actually change future actions. In fact, there is a disincentive to changing because you move away from doing what you know works and into the realm of the unknown. The new actions may not work so you will be, at the very least, going without the sense of certainty that what you are doing is going to be effective, and, more likely, be going without the money. Better to call it a lesson so you get to continue to do what you did before and get the same outcome. This is what immunizes the fitness professional from the pain associated with making a mistake because the reframe allows the “lesson” to be the cost of knowing something and because it ultimately is the responsibility of the member / client / participant to put in the work. If the habit doesn’t take after exactly 3 weeks it is probably the clients fault for doing something wrong. The mistake was not in the BS statement, it was to belief that the client or member was willing to put in the work to form that new habit.

So long as there is no pain associated with the action, the motivation to do anything different will never grow. The client will experience the pain. When, on the 22nd day, going to the gym and eating more healthful food is not the automatic, they will begin to feel the pain of their blown expectation. And this is the problem with not being completely honest with people when it comes to the fitness industry. People are hopeful about their future and very much want to believe that it will not only get very easy to do, but that it won’t take very long for that to happen. “It takes 21 days to learn a new skill and make it a habit” is tailor-made to capitalize on their vulnerable state of mind. They are coached into thinking “sure, it’ll be tough for a couple of weeks but then it will get easy and after that, it’s only a matter of time before I look and feel amazing.”

That just isn’t true. Well, the second part of it might be, that it will be just a matter of time before they look and feel amazing so long as they continue to consistently put in the work in the gym and the kitchen. But for 95% of the people who take-up fitness it can be months or years before their body and brain make the pursuit of physical improvement automatic. Until then, and even occasionally afterwards, it will require will-power. In my experience, the only people for which the 21 days saying actually applies are for those who have taken a short period of time away from their exercise habit. For everyone else there is an almost 100% chance that the saying is false and for those who sign-up for services based on their belief of it will be disappointed and have less money because of it.

My approach now is almost complete honesty and to even attempt to talk someone out of joining or starting because a lot of people do not want to improve their fitness, they simply want to be happier. While becoming a regular exerciser can improve happiness and improve someone’s feelings of well-being, it can also contribute to a lot of suffering, misery, and feelings of shame and inadequacy. If you don’t believe this, consider what goes through someone’s mind when they hit day 22 and find that they haven’t really learned a new skill and have definitely not made it a habit. When they find going to the gym on week 4 to be as tough as or even tougher than they did on week 1, what are they going to think about themselves? When they start to compare themselves to the other members who seem to be showing up 3-5 times a week without any effort and when they remember the certainty in which the sales person or personal trainer told them that it would only take 21 days it will be nearly impossible to not be flooded with feelings of inadequacy and failure. Experiencing these feelings is not conducive to being happy.

I made a mistake and I changed course because I felt horrible for lying to people when they were vulnerable, easily influenced, and when I stood to gain from saying something that sounded true but was clearly false. When I had to face myself in the mirror I realized that I had been using BS to harvest peoples hope in an attempt to help sell them gym memberships. And morally I felt awful because I knew that I had contributed to their suffering. It wasn’t a mistake because I SHOULD have known better and it wasn’t a lesson because I already knew better.

This brings me to some of the other things I was told when I was learning how to sell gym memberships. The sales managers and sales coaches tried to make me feel bad for applying what I knew about people. The statement “how are they supposed to believe in themselves if you don’t even believe in them?” was directed towards me more than once. As was “who are you to judge them for something that might happen in the future? Who are you to deny them the opportunity to have a better life?” These statements feel like they might be true, except I knew that they were not. It wasn’t that I was a pessimist, it was that I was both a realist and someone with a back ground in psychology / human behavior. I believed in the prospective members as much as I believe in people. I knew what it took for me to change my behavior and I knew a lot of the theories about what is required for human beings to be ready for change. The truth is that there are only a couple of short cuts to the process and unless someone arrives at the gym for the first time having taken one of them, having had one of the requisite experiences OR is actually ready to change, they will have extreme difficult making the changes.

Informed consent is a thing that is very important and it was the only thing that we were NOT seeking. We needed and wanted their consent in terms of a signature on a legally binding agreement to allow the gym to access their bank account to withdraw the membership dues. The act of informing them of the actions they were going to need to do was vacated in favor of cultivating their hope and filling their mind with grand ideas that do not hold up. When they failed to form the new habit it was their decision and completely their own responsibility. When I would talk about my concerns about the entire transaction I was reminded that maybe the habit didn’t take because I didn’t believe in the member enough. The fact that behavior change is hard and requires sustained unreasonable effort was completely ignored. My crappy attitude was probably contributing to the member’s challenges in automating a difficult set of complex behaviors that are both physical challenging and are experienced as psychological pain. Initially I adjusted my attitude but it became obvious very quickly that my sincere belief in other people is not sufficient to move them to do anything more than to sign-up and come in a few times during the first few weeks. The heavy lifting needed to be done by them.

This all comes down to the following couple of facts:

The first is that people operate using a system of rewards and punishments. Rewards serve to fuel action and to repeat an action that lead to the reward. Punishments serve to reduce action in general but specifically the action that caused the punishment. At the shallowest level, things that feel good are rewards and things that feel bad are punishments. With references to the “it takes 21 days” line I learned, it was initially reinforced because it seemed to be effective at getting people to sign-up for a gym membership. The closing of the sale felt good because it meant that I had performed my job well and would result in higher wages come pay-day. However, after the first month, I began to notice that the new members were not that much different from me and many were having difficult forming that habit. Their pain and eventual disillusionment started to weigh on me. They had a desire to finally make the life of their dreams and started with such hope that it would become a habit very quickly. Reality landed on them HARD after the first few weeks turned into a month and it remained a constant challenge to eat better and drive to the gym to do movements that are not innately rewarding. Either because they were telling me this, I was reading it on their faces, or because they stopped coming into the gym, I was getting absolutely clear that the exercise habit is a tough one to create. The words that had once been powerfully reinforced though sales began to be experienced as punishments when I realized that I had lied to the people who had trusted me.

On a deeper level, the pleasure and pain can be perceived as either reward or punishment, and this is the area that my NOT taking the effort to more fully inform them of what would be required to become an habitual exerciser and more effective eater came back to haunt me. At this deeper level, were pain can be viewed as a reward and pleasure can be viewed as a punishment, the person needs to take the time to think about what is going on in order to manufacture the meaning that matches reward or punishment. For me, as a sales person, closing a sale would only feel good when I made it as clear as possible what the first few months of the gym would be like for them and the sense of loss or sacrifice that comes along with changing your diet to remove sugar and junk food while increasing the consumption of highly nutritious foods. My aim became disclosing as possible about how long it would take to reach their goal and the number of times they would have to say “no” to something they wanted and “yes” to something that felt uncomfortable in the short term.

Of course two things happened here. The first was that the sales managers and coaches did not like me going off script and tried to move me back on course; which I wasn’t having any of because I had grown tired of feeling like a lying jerk. The second was that the members who signed-up became active members because they were fully aware of what was about to happen, had considered it, and had still made the decision to join. When, 8 weeks later, they still found that they had to call upon their willpower to come to the gym at the end of their work day, they were not plagued with any feelings of “why hasn’t this become a habit yet?” or “what is wrong with me, why can’t I like this?” They did not like it, but they accepted it as something that they were going to have to do in order to get the thing that they wanted. This, more than anything else, is the formula for success – consistent hard work over time. They were able to view showing-up and making it to the end of a workout as rewarding in spite of the fact that NOTHING about it brought them any measurable pleasure. They manufactured a meaning that served as a proxy for pleasure to allow their brain to reward the behavior.

This is what is called the “discipline high.” You trigger chemical rewards in response to doing things that are hard, require will power, and for which there is a big disincentive to doing. Pain becomes pleasure-like, pleasure becomes pain-like and the person takes the actions they accepted as part of the journey. This type of meaning manufacturing might have been what the “21 days to learn…” statement was getting at, but it was never outlined or explained to me this way.

Now it turned out that because of my updated approach, the powers that be thought that I would be a better manager than sales person and I got the opportunity to perform that role at a different club. I employed the same updated approach with managing the team as I had with selling memberships and they responded in more or less the same way. Improving at anything will take sustained work, a lot of which will not be directly rewarding. The sooner you accept this fact and just start doing it the better the process is going to go for you.

Years later, when I look at those first steps into to the fitness field I smile and feel grateful that they are behind me. At the time I didn’t realize that it is a self-help industry and that no matter what I bring to the table the members, participants, or clients will need to perform the work. I can motivate, want, coach, etc. until I’m exhausted, but if they do not put in the effort there will be NO transformation. They need to help themselves and until they are willing AND doing it, nothing is going to happen.

It is a fun job for many but for me it is only fun when there has been full disclosure and the person is agreeing to perform their role KNOWING that it is going to be hard work, mostly thankless, void of any physical reward and is not something that feels good initially. Each of us have the potential to learn how to work our muscles in a way that causes them to release feel good chemicals but reaching this point requires the body to work at a particularly hard level for an unpleasantly long period of time. Put another way, you need to be very fit, have strong muscles, and the ability to tolerate a large amount of discomfort before the body will respond by releasing endorphins to numb the pain and boost the pleasure. This can take 3 to 9 months, which is a lot longer than the 21 days I used to promise. BUT when you know that it will happen and that the journey towards that moment might just suck completely, you are much more likely to accept the work as part of it and just do it.

I’m now much more inclined to consider a mistake both a mistake AND a lesson. It is a mistake because the pain is a necessary part of the process. It reduces the chances of me repeating an action that causes pain. This simultaneously creates the opportunity of a future perceived contrast reward in so far as any elimination of pain is experienced as pleasure when contrasted to the possibility of that pain. The pain eliminates the actions that do not work as the prospect of pleasure serves to fuel different actions in the future. In the absence of certainty that an action WILL lead to a rewarding outcome, we leverage this hope of a rewarding outcome to keep trying.

Don’t let yourself off the hook by labeling a mistake a lesson. Your brain learns better when there is something on the line so keep it there and learn from your mistakes.

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