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Good Judgment Comes From Experience. Experience Comes From Bad Judgment.

My grandmother was a remarkably kind person. Once my college roommate answered a phone call from her when I wasn’t home. My roommate told me, “Someone called for you, and she said she’d call back, but I forgot to ask who it was.” “What did she sound like?” I asked. “She sounded…comforting.” I knew immediately it was Nana.


In addition to her mission to comfort the world, my grandmother had an indefatigably positive outlook on life. When I would tell her about the disasters in my young life, some bad outcome of one of my endeavors — a job I got fired from, a trip where everything went wrong, a date with someone who turned out to be a very bad fit indeed — she would say, “Well, it was a good experience.”

This distinction between a good result and a good experience is an important one. A good result is about success. A good experience might very well be a failure — but one that you learn something from. What you learn may be something relatively mundane like “Always check to make sure the trains run on Saturday!” Or it might be a real piece of wisdom, like “Don’t ignore the red flags in a relationship out of wishful thinking.” Or, best of all, it might be a critical piece of knowledge about yourself, like “I think of myself as a timid person, but apparently I am committed to my principles.”

Success is about an outcome. But the outcome is only one small part of an endeavor, after all. Leading up to the end result is the whole experience itself, which might not change the world, or even your life, in the way you had intended — but it will surely change you.

This distinction between a good result and a good experience is an important one.

As we age, it is natural to look back on our lives. This looking back can be especially poignant if we are facing a huge life change, like the onset of dementia. With looking back, there can come regret: I wish I had pursued that one relationship; I wish I had taken more risks; I wish I had pursued this career instead of sticking to that one.

I have two things to say to you about outcomes and regrets. One is for the present, and one is for the past.

First, about the past: Do not look at your past choices only in terms of their end result on your life; see them also in terms of their effect on you. Take a different sort of look back at your life, a view that takes into account not just how things ended up (what you accomplished). Turn your attention to the experience itself. What kind of person did it reveal? What kind of person did it create?

Second, about the present: Don’t look at your current decisions only in terms of their ability to attain a certain outcome. Even if your choices don’t achieve your objective, what might you learn about yourself on the way to failure? How will the experience affect you — not just when it is over, but all along the way?

Do we have room in our minds to consider taking risks to gain experience? Can we think of a decision not just in terms of what it will bring about in the long run, but also what experiences it will give us while we’re working toward the goal we have set?

Seen with this new emphasis on the importance of the journey, not just the destination, the lives we’ve lived so far might look different. And the risks we take today — taking into account not just the odds of success, but also the meaning of the experience itself — might be different too.