“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey
I’ve written before about how I’ve worked hard to develop a practice of reflection… daily, monthly, and annually. In doing so I’ve become convinced it is one of the most effective tools of effective leaders. Although the end of the year is an arbitrary time, it is a convenient time to find a few days to be alone and look back on the prior months. This year I’m taking advantage of a couple days when my wife will be at a conference to sequester myself on a beach, disconnect, and ponder some questions. What had I planned on doing, what ended up happening, what did I learn, how can I improve on that, and what will I plan on doing this coming year?
A few weeks before my annual ritual I also look for some inspiration that will help me look at the process of reflection – it is a process – from a new perspective. One year Jon Miller recommended Edgar Shein’s Humble Inquiry, which I found fascinating from many angles. This year a friend told me about John Dewey, and specifically his book How We Think. It’s definitely not as easy of a read as Schein’s, but there are some jewels.
Dewey dives deeply into thinking processes, and how our thoughts create beliefs that may be fallacious.
Such thoughts grow up unconsciously and without reference to the attainment of correct belief. They are picked up — we know not how. From obscure sources and by unnoticed channels they insinuate themselves into acceptance and become unconsciously a part of our mental furniture. Tradition, instruction, imitation — all of which depend upon authority in some form, or appeal to our own advantage, or fall in with a strong passion — are responsible for them. Such thoughts are prejudices, that is, prejudgments, not judgments proper that rest upon a survey of evidence.
So we need to look at how we think, and how that’s contributed to what we perceive, ie reflective thought.
Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought… It is a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons.
Thinking therefore becomes an intentional process of analyzing thoughts and beliefs.
Thinking … is defined accordingly as that operation in which present facts suggest other facts (or truths) in such a way as to induce belief in the latter upon the ground or warrant of the former. We do not put beliefs that rest simply on inference on the surest level of assurance. To say “I think so” implies that I do not as yet know so. The inferential belief may later be confirmed and come to stand as sure, but in itself it always has a certain element of supposition…
[There are] certain subprocesses which are involved in every reflective operation. These are: (a) a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt; and (b) an act of search or investigation directed toward bringing to light further facts which serve to corroborate or to nullify the suggested belief.
From which reflection is also a process.
Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence — a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley. Each phase is a step from something to something — technically speaking, it is a term of thought. Each term leaves a deposit which is utilized in the next term. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread.
Intentional reflection, therefore, is not just sitting on the beach and letting a “medley” of thoughts on the past year flow through my head. It is a planned analysis.
I’ll begin with the foundation of last year’s plan and the data of the results from that plan. I can then review what happened to each element of the plan and break that down to look at potential root causes for failures. It’s important to also look at root causes for successes, as those can be built upon and optimized. Then what are the commonalities between what happened with various elements of the plan? What experiments can I try to improve? What do I expect to happen? How and when will I know if I have succeeded or failed? How can I apply and integrate that into what I want to accomplish over the next year? How does that align with my personal principles, values, and my “why?” What do I want to stop doing?
I’ve loosely followed that process in the past, but I want to be more disciplined this year. A couple of solid, disconnected days in solitude sound about right for this activity.