It's altogether too common to hear leaders, whether in companies or governments, try to absolve themselves of the responsibility for something catastrophic by speaking of the lessons that they have learned.
Although some humility usually accompanies such admissions, the overall message seems to be that "we didn't know any better."
Just learning lessons doesn't solve anything, and that's why these things happen again and again and again.
It's because the lesson is just the first step. It's not the endgame. If you never get past learning lessons, then you'll just keep making the same mistakes.
We can all surmise about what we should've done differently in order to have effected a better outcome, but if it's unlikely that you'll ever encounter that situation again, then knowing what the lesson is doesn't matter.
A skiing trip
I've never been mechanically inclined. I've learned to my cost that such things are better left to people who know what they're doing.
When I was 14, we were skiing at Arapahoe Basin in Colorado.
On this occasion, my own lack of skill, an icy surface, and the inattention of another skier resulted in a collision.
The question is, why did my leg break?
A likely cause was that my bindings were too tight. In fact, my boot was still in the ski after the accident. Without realizing it, I had tightened them too much because I kept coming out of them. And I was impatient, not to mention cold, waiting for my dad to come down off the slopes to help me.
Now here's the thing.
I never skied again. It wasn't because I didn't want to. I did. But 10 weeks in plaster plus the recovery time put an end to that season. And after that, when I had the time, I didn't have money, and when I had the money, I didn't have the time.
What was the lesson? It may have been to take greater care in how much I tightened my bindings. But so what? I haven't skied since and have no plans to do so.
What was the principle? That's a much better question because a principle applies in many situations.
In this case, one principle is to apply what Tim Ferriss calls the minimum effective dose. That is, do only what's necessary.
Another might be to avoid taking drastic action needlessly.
Another might be to be more cognizant of what others are doing so as to avoid getting into a perilous situation in the first place.
There are those, of course, who would extend this principle beyond where it should go by trying to make everything perfect. That, too, would be to focus on the lesson, rather than the principle.
There's something else, however, that most people miss, and that is that the cause may not be something that can be easily identified or controlled.
If we go back to my unfortunate mishap, we can't say for sure that I wouldn't have broken my leg if the bindings hadn't been so tight. It was a serious collision.
The icy surface combined with my lack of skill meant that, although I could see someone turn directly into my path, I was unable to dig my edges in sufficiently to avoid him.
And I was going faster than I should've been, too, because of the ice. I was just trying to get into an open and less steep area a few hundred yards ahead where I knew that I could slow down naturally, but I had no control over what the other skier was doing. I could only react to it.
Did you know that just because two things happen simultaneously doesn't mean that one caused the other? That's what most people believe.
The fact is that there are many things that occur which are caused by events and circumstances that may seem unrelated or are unnoticed. But people tend to look for a cause that is closely associated with the outcome. And the thing is that it's unlikely that they will find it because that's not where it is.
Does it feel like you're going in circles, covering the same ground over and over again?
Do you wonder what lesson you might be missing?
Instead of stopping with the lesson, think about the principle that links them all together.