Generally speaking, it does not take long for most people to figure out that their experiences, particularly their mistakes, are integral to shaping their future decision-making. Although it is almost universally understood that most people learn from experience, the practical implications of this concept often do not extend very far from that conclusion. In other words, what’s confusingly rare is the ability of people to take the next step to venture beyond themselves and also learn from witnessing the experiences of others around them. It’s usually because people just don’t pay enough attention to what is going on next to them, have tunnel vision, are not curious enough, or because they automatically deflect what they see others experiencing under the guise of “it won’t happen to me.” The process is similar to watching a new movie and leaving any substantive information you may have picked up with the movie once the credits start rolling. Even though you may have learned something interesting, it is quickly forgotten. This is not a very useful way to go about your every day life, and is disadvantageous for many reasons.
It is vital to your growth, as a person and in practice, to absorb as much information as possible, store it, understand it, and apply it going forward. Every single day should be a learning experience, and any time you hear about anything, or see someone do something, if it has any sort of value learn to keep it with you. You should be a walking and talking knowledge sponge. It is often hard for people to relate to others’ experiences unless they wind up experiencing that something themselves. This cannot be you. There are valuable lessons to be learned and, in turn, applied simply by absorbing information and applying it to your life. This is not referring to small, irrelevant pieces of information, but valuable experiences that you may come across from reading about them from different sources or witnessing them happen to others. For some, this may seem like common sense but you’d be surprised how much useful information the average person simply passes through as if it’s a case of into one ear and out the other. If what they encounter doesn’t concern them, why bother? Wrong attitude.
The easiest example of this is being able to learn from the mistakes of others without having to go through the same experience. For example, when your office mate gets chewed out by a partner over the way a memo was written, be it the analysis, the formatting, or the research process, take a moment to discuss what happened if possible. Do not simply reply with a generic “that sucks, is it a lot of work to fix?” reply and proceed about your day. By reading the comments and receiving the feedback your office mate received from the partner, you gain knowledge and an ability to keep that in mind heading forward when you have a memo to submit, even if it’s for a different partner. You become a better lawyer when you actively try to share information with your peers and pursue, without being annoying, the feedback they receive on their work.
This process is no different than going online and reading about other people’s experiences in a particular practice area or with a particular experience. The point is you actively seek this information, and even when you do not, you are aware enough to pick up on it when it occurs. Again, for some this may be preaching to the choir but many people often just proceed with everything focused solely on themselves and operating as if in a dark tunnel. They try their hand at something, and must mess up something themselves before it finally sticks. Why? There’s really no reason not to apply others’ experiences internally as soon as you learn about them and to proceed accordingly.
A good way to measure how good you are at this is your response to the following example about potentially enrolling in law school: imagine reading about 30 people online who took out 200K in student loans to fund law school, then reading about how 25 of them cannot service that debt upon graduation. You were thinking about taking out a similar amount. Does this information in any way make you second guess your decision? Does it make you want to analyze their facts a little deeper to understand how closely correlated any of their positions were to yours? Does it make you want to research student loans and the best methods of servicing them, along with your potential law school’s employment statistics? The point here is that you do not want to be the person that reads all those stories and chalks it all up to the common “my situation’s going to be different” rationale. Instead, this information will be an important tool that sparks a quest for more knowledge on the subject resulting in a much more informed game plan. Although this is a large scale example, this type of curiosity and awareness should occur on a smaller scale on a daily basis, particularly at work. Remember, as a young associate, the more you are able to grasp, absorb, and adapt, the more marketable and experienced you become. Don’t just go through the motions, or focus entirely on what you have to accomplish that day. Alongside all of that, be interested in your surroundings and the experiences of those around you. Consider your co-workers test subjects of your own knowledge experiment, and learn to absorb what you see next to you as much as you absorb what actually happens to you.