Monday, November 15, 2010

Lessons Learned

I don't know about you, but when I bang myself with a hammer, the pain and bruising in my fingers makes a long-lasting impression in my mind. So, when I swing a hammer, I make darned certain that my hands are clear. Some lessons are learned very quickly indeed. However, on the other hand, some lessons, that may have even more lasting consequences than a few bruised fingers, never seem to be absorbed, or at least, take a very long time to be fully learned. As I was thinking about this post, two specific examples turned over and over in my mind.

1). A huge amount of my life's work as a scientist, representing past projects, current analyses, and future planning is contained on several computers. Over the years, I have had more than a few of my computers unexpectedly crash and burn to their untimely death. This has cost me some significant losses, along with my fair share of anxiety and anguish. Yet today I do not regularly make back-up copies of my most important files, even when I understand first hand what is at stake. I have been struck by that hammer several times, yet I still leave my fingers directly in the danger zone.

2). Several days a week I am responsible for picking up my daughter from school. A few years ago, I fell into the habit of trying to stay at work until the last possible second, and then heading out to pick her up. One day there was a traffic problem and I arrived at her school about 10 minutes late. When I finally reached my daughter, I could see that she had been crying. I saw worry and fear all over her face. Ever since I was struck with that hammer, I have been sure to arrive at our meeting place about 15 minutes early. That hammer will never strike my fingers again.

Why is it that some lessons are easy to absorb and others are so hard? Do our minds perform some complex cost-benefit analysis where it weighs the possible outcomes and risks associated with our actions and behaviors? Maybe. But this sounds like it is giving me too much credit. I suspect that the lessons most easily learned are the ones that are most personal, that bruise not just our fingers, but our hearts.