By: Christopher Brennan
“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.” The Road, Cormac McCarthy
I’ve been stewing on how to tackle the filter of Previous Experience for months. This has the potential to be a massive topic of consideration, and one that would bore you to death in about twelve seconds. Tops.
The easy way out might have been to just write an essay that lays out the research into performance and mastery that I have talked about before. It takes 200 repetitions of a skill to build automaticity, and it take 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over the course of a decade to reach the level of competency seen in an international elite performer in domains ranging from chess Grand Masters to award winning musicians.
Those are the easy ways to quantify previous experience, but I have to say that as we examine Col.Boyd’s concept of the OODA Loop we have to remember that the diagram is simple in the same way the equation E=MC2 is simple. In the case of the OODA Loop, we have a model that is attempting to describe how our minds work. It may not look simple, but it is pretty distilled
Simplicity is what Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann is speaking of in his TED talk “Beauty, truth, and… physics?”[i] Elegance and beauty are nearly synonymous when we are talking about the refined expression of a complex topic. Just because it can be expressed simply doesn’t mean it’s easy.
So, what is previous experience? Put simply it is the amalgamation of every emotion, every thought, every action that has happened to you, that has been stored somewhere in your mind. Some of these things are unconscious; you could not recall them if you were commanded to and yet there they sit having left an imprint on how you think and feel.
We are unable to control our previous experiences for the most part. We are being bombarded with stimuli constantly; even when we are sleeping our skin cells are using photoreceptive traits to modulate hormonal levels. Yet our previous experiences can and will color everything we do. Considering then our focus, if our previous experiences are an aspect of our Orientation and have a direct bearing on how we implicitly and explicitly decide and act, how does learning and studying our previous experiences help our ability to perform?
A Mouse and a Bull Walk Into a Bar
We have to turn a critical and unemotional eye on our past reaching back into childhood, and consider all that we currently believe and why we believe it if we are to take the maximum benefit of our positive previous experiences and learn to transcend those things that have left us with road blocks. Our objective is to assess the environment around us with the highest degree of accuracy possible. We want to remove errors that WE are creating because of misinterpretation so that we can rapidly and appropriately respond to what is actually happening in our environment.
In Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky’s narrator compares the qualities of a mouse to the qualities of a bull. The mouse is analogous to the person who sits in contemplation of all he does, all he has and has not done, and all he could have done which would have made his life better. The bull is the proverbial man of action, who plunges into the fray without a second thought. The mouse, in Fyodor’s view, is caught inside his own mind while the bull has never a second thought. This tendency towards self-reflection and criticism has its down sides,
“…the luckless mouse succeeds in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions, adds to the one question so many unsettled question that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew…”[ii]
This 1864 novella’s allusion to the unsettling effects of doubt brought on by the highly reflective person is spot on if we consider what Leonard Mlodinow reports in Subliminal, “In fact studies show that the people with the most accurate self-perceptions tend to be moderately depressed, suffer from low self esteem, or both.”[iii] Regardless it is important that we ask where our views come from and how they have brought us to where we are.
The movie American History X portrays the far-reaching consequence that previous experiences have on a person’s worldview. The character of Derek becomes a violent white supremacist, after black drug dealers murder his father. The movie is as much about the impact of Derek’s incarceration, for murdering two black men for attempting to steal his truck, on his brother Danny as it is about Derek’s eventual rehabilitation. A pivotal scene in the movie shows us how Derek’s and Danny’s father’s racism laid a foundation for his sons racist world view to grow from. To revisit a quote I’ve used before but I feel is always worth repeating, “Ignorance is something you can’t overcome but you past it on down and that’s something much worse…”[iv]
While Notes… and American History X are deeply philosophical they are works of fiction and as such have to tell us a story. Our examination of our previous experiences, our conscious ones as well as our unconscious ones tell us a story as well, the story is about how our worldview has come to be constructed. It is in understanding that narrative that we can begin to understand how our previous experiences inform our decisions.