Lessons Learned; Lessons that Should have been Learned – Insight from Taleb, Rosling, and Willink, for these difficult days

I have read, and presented synopses of, well over 500 books since we began the First Friday Book Synopsis back in the late 1990s.  The books I have presented deal with every aspect of business, and, other books I have presented for the Urban Engagement Book Club deal with issues of social justice (poverty; racism; education; homelessness…).

I have learned so many lessons from these authors and their books.  And, there are a few lessons that I have read in book after book, time and again, that I’m not sure we have learned at all.

Here are two that come to mind at this moment in our new crisis:

the_black_swan(from The Black Swan and Factfulness, among other books):
Lesson #1 – The unexpected bad thing will happen. Be ready for a bad thing to happen, even if you don’t know what that bad thing is.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that no one can predict any specific black swan.  By definition, a black swan is something (usually, something bad) that no one could see coming.  But, they can see this:  a black swan is coming.  Don’t be surprised when it does arrive.

In Factfulness, Hans Rosling included a global pandemic as one of the six bad things that genuinely worried him. #6, by the way, was the bad thing that no one knows how to predict; the unknown, thus utterly unpredictable, bad thing.

But, if you read this book, you realize that we should have had teams of people developing solid plans for the coming global pandemic.  It was predicted.  It has arrived.  And we were not ready, when we should have been.

(from Jocko Willink, and others, about the value of the after-action review)
Lesson #2 – You will make mistakes. So, be sure to carve out time to learn from your mistakes.  Then, actually learn from your mistakes.

Each branch of the military apparently has a different vocabulary for these critical exercises, but it goes like this:  when you plan and then execute an operation, you then do an after-action review.  You ask four key questions;

#1 – What was supposed to happen?  What was our intent?
#2 – What actually happened?
#3 – Why was there a difference between what was intended — what was supposed to happen — and what actually happened?
#4 – What can we learn from this so that that bad thing does not happen again?

There already have been plenty of mistakes made during this crisis. Some of them (many of them) are genuinely deadly; people are dying.  But we need to do plenty of very careful, honest, humble after-action review work when all of this is over.

And leaders who are not willing to learn from mistakes made are very bad leaders, because they doom us to make the same mistakes again.

There are other lessons I am pondering. But these two stand out pretty clearly to me.

Stay safe; and stay well.


By the way, the book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a book to help you become “antifragile,” the opposite of fragile.  This book seems like a needed read for times such as this.

My synopses of books by Taleb, and Willink, and many others, are available for purchase.  Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page handout, plus the audio recording of my presentation.  Go to the buy synopses tab at the top of this page, and do a search by title. Click here for our newest additions.

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