It is said that a cat, once burned on a hot stove, never sits on a hot stove again. But the cat never sits on a cold stove either. I don’t know if this is true, but I know that there is an important message in the story, which is the importance of learning the right lesson.

We all have had troubles, crises, and pains. We all have had romantic relationships that did not work out. Most of the time, we dust ourselves off, lick our wounds and re-engage with life. Occasionally, we’ve heard a friend say, “I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never love/trust again.” This is a classic case of learning the wrong lesson.

My first out-of-town development turned out to be a painful learning experience, and there was a part of me that never wanted to venture into development again, much less outside the relative safety of my own backyard. Yet even in the midst of the excruciating financial pain I knew that I must learn the right lesson, not the “easy” wrong lesson. The “easy” wrong lesson is to run as fast as you can from anything that comes even close to resembling the source of so much pain––hot stoves AND cold stoves.

One motivational tool I used on myself was the frame that I had paid such high tuition to learn this lesson that I was darn well going to get an A+ and learn the right lesson. I did an exhaustive in-depth analysis, a thorough post-situation review to wring from it every little bit of growth I could.

One interesting facet is that every mistake I committed I had heard about or read about. It was just that intellectual knowledge turned out to have a different feel than real time, 3-D reality. Hence the value of experience over education. Also, I came to believe that project risk increases exponentially when compounded: If one thing goes wrong on a complex project it immediately increases the risk level of other things going wrong. Nothing succeeds like success. Nothing compounds like failure! There is a virtuous cycle and there is a vicious cycle, a downward slippery slope. It is certainly not inevitable, but it does require heightened vigilance and effort.

It certainly is not easy to know what is the right lesson in every situation. But it is always helpful to

1. Step back (go to the balcony, go to the mountaintop) to get perspective and ask the question, and

2. Beware the quick and easy answer.

This is a classic from the NSCBlog archive, originally posted March 7, 2008.