Making distinctions

color blind eye sqFrom my friend and colleague Bill Merriam, I acquired the saying, “Your story is the horse your distinctions ride in on.”  That phrase has become a staple of how I talk to others who want to understand what I do to earn a livelihood, and is one of the cornerstones in how I teach coaching.

Stories are explanations, accounts of causes and effects, personal narratives that construct meaning from experience.  When you want to better understand another’s meaning-making apparatus, learning how to listen to their stories, and how to listen for the distinctions embedded in their stories, is essential.  To develop a better feel for meaning-making, stories, and distinctions, it will help to illustrate the notion with a few key ideas.

Distinctions, in the classical sense, refer to conceptual demarcations or boundaries.  Used as a verb, how do you distinguish one category from another?  A familiar example would be colors:  Can you distinguish red from green?  For most people that is straightforward.  For someone who is red/green colorblind, or blind from birth, while the words red and green will be in their vocabulary, they will not actually possess the distinction.  How about this color distinction:  eggshell white vs. linen white?  Unless you are familiar with interior design or fashion, that distinction might not be meaningful to you.  You hear the words, but can’t construct a meaningful distinction.

Distinctions drive competence.  Said another way, you can only be competent in domains in which you possess distinctions.  Distinctions are more than verbal.  Hitting a baseball, making an incision with a scalpel, performing a violin concerto, also involve distinctions that cannot be fully expressed verbally.  Each of us works from a large body of distinctions, which is they key component of our meaning-making apparatus.  You are continually adding to your distinctions over the course of your life and you can add layers of nuance to your acquired distinctions as you learn from new experience.

Although your body of distinctions in one domain might help you address challenges in a different domain, your lack of distinctions in a particular domain will often limit your options.  Distinctions are rooted in actual experience, so it is inevitable that you will find domains in which your body of distinctions is impoverished.  The risk is that you will treat novel situations as familiar, and apply inaccurate distinctions that contribute to sub-optimal choices and actions.  Just talk to new parents or new managers.  Superficial familiarity can contribute to a false sense of competence.  Your available distinctions might be inadequate in the face of genuine novelty.

Experts’ distinctions are more nuanced than those of novices.  Our body of distinctions is pliable, and often needs to be expanded.  I want to invite you to explore how three concepts operate in your body of distinctions.  For you, in practice, how different are each of these ideas:  Errors, mistakes and failures?

Errors occur when there is a discrepancy between your intentions and your results.  By definition, errors are unintentional.  In domains in which your distinctions are limited and you lack competence, the probability of errors are high.  If you have little experience (lack competence) playing tennis or racquet sports, the probability is high that when you play, the ball will not land where you intended.  You committed an error.  Errors are an obvious feature of trial-and-error learning.

Mistakes occur when you actually do possess the distinction/competence in the relevant domain, but for whatever reason, you did not apply your distinction/competence properly, and generated an undesirable result:  You’re driving down the road, for example, but because you’re distracted or preoccupied, you drive past the point where you knew you should turn.  You made a mistake.

Failure is actually an engineering distinction.  A structure/device did not perform to the specifications to which it was designed.  The bridge was built to support up to 100 tons of weight; at 80 tons, the bridge collapsed:  The bridge failed. 

If you cannot distinguish between errors, mistakes and failures, you are at risk for impeding your own learning.

There is a story about Thomas Edison being interviewed by a New York Times reporter who asked him about how it felt to fail so many times.  In the version I heard, Edison’s reply suggested that he didn’t fail 700 times; rather he experienced 700 lessons on what didn’t work on his way to figure out what did work.

When Dr. Phil McGraw interviews guests on his show and they share their justifications for questionable decisions, his signature question is “And how’s that working for you?” That should be a question all of us ask ourselves when we examine our own distinctions:  How’s that (distinction) working for me?  Are my distinctions empowering?  Are my distinctions sufficiently nuanced?  In which domains might I need to develop new or additional distinctions?