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Experiential Vs. Inherited Wisdom

Lonnie Pacelli -- An industry expert shares 12 wisdom nuggets and why you don't always have to learn hard lessons first-hand.

So the older I get the more I think about the lessons I've learned in my career. Oh, to go back in time and talk to my younger self about the boneheaded things I did. Sadly, my younger self probably wouldn't have listened to any imparted wisdom (which I define as knowledge coupled with experience). I was recklessly confident—I didn't think I would get burned by touching the stove, no matter how many before me got burnt.

Ah, the naivete of youth.

What I've come to realize is that learning hard lessons doesn't mean I have to experience them first-hand. It's far less physically, emotionally and financially painful to learn from others. This has led me to an important conclusion--there are two paths to wisdom. The first is experiential wisdom, where I know the stove is hot because I touched it. The second is inherited wisdom, where I believe someone with credibility when they tell me the stove is hot. I could have saved myself a lot of time, stress, and money if I understood and practiced inherited wisdom.

In my zeal to help those still climbing the career mountain, following are my 12 wisdom nuggets to help others avoid experiential wisdom and replace it with inherited wisdom.

Don't use "ask for forgiveness, not permission" as an excuse for disorganization or laziness—I'm all in for people making urgent decisions without crossing all the Ts, but I've also seen many people who were either too lazy or too disorganized to ensure they had appropriate authority to proceed. Both the leader and follower should establish agreed-upon guiding principles for decision making, then make sure any "ask for forgiveness" instances are the exception not the rule.

Throttle actions to urgency—As a younger leader I had difficulty mastering measured responses to situations. I either called in the Cavalry for run-of-the-mill issues or fiddled away while Rome burned. As I got older, I learned to assess a situation and its consequences, then act with the required urgency. When handed an issue, take time to triage it and determine an appropriate course and speed of action.

Knowledge is having the answers, wisdom is knowing when to speak up—This is one I'll be working on until I'm pushing up daisies. Smart people want to have answers and their tendency is to push their point of view on others. But just because you know something doesn't mean everyone else needs to know how smart you are. Sometimes the best response is no response at all, or a measured response in a different setting.

Less answers, more questions—As a young consultant I thought my job was to have all the answers and make sure the client knew I had the answers. Over the years I learned that some of the greatest value I provided to my clients was not answers but the sincere, thought-provoking questions I asked. Respectfully asking questions that challenge the status quo or prevailing points of view were key to defining effective solutions. If you're not good at asking questions, get some coaching and training. The skill of effectively asking questions will pay dividends throughout your career.

Don't alienate others with your personal points of view—This is particularly important in today's loose-lipped social media culture. Not everyone shares your point of view on topics like politics, social issues, or religion. Saying things like "unfriend me if you voted for ___" telegraphs how unimportant you consider relationships. Be mindful of what you say and whether you may be inadvertently alienating friends, loved ones, and associates. See this article for more.

Realize the importance of recharging the batteries—Chronically burning the midnight oil and depriving yourself of rest and leisure activities simply isn't sustainable. I learned this lesson the hard way and was forced to take a leave of absence from my job due to physical and emotional exhaustion. Rather than controlling when I took a time-out myself, it was determined for me. Make rest and leisure a priority, not an after-thought.

Sacrifice now to protect the future—My first job out of college was the first day I started saving for retirement. It was never a question of whether to save. Through the years I made financial choices to save versus buying things I could live without. I fully understand that some people truly live on a minimalist budget and don't have the resources to put money away for the future. But for every person in this situation there is another who adopts a "live for today" attitude and chooses buying non-essential items over saving for the future. Make saving a priority if at all possible.

Make regret-free family choices—My father died with a lot of regret because he didn't spend enough time with his kids when they were growing up. He influenced me as a dad to focus on being there for soccer games and school plays. Now that my kids are grown, I can't imagine the feeling of looking back and saying, "I wish I would have been there for ____." Don't make family choices when you're young that you'll likely regret when you're older.

Formulate your legacy statement in your working years—I've had a number of discussions with people about the right time to think about their legacy statement. I started formulating mine (To help others to help themselves and not simply enable them) in my early forties. It's been super helpful to have a clear legacy statement as it not only guides me on what I should focus on as well as what I should not focus on. As example, I do a lot of coaching and mentoring with an up-front understanding that it is my job to help the person help him or herself. He or she needs to put at least as much effort in as I do, or we terminate the relationship. Having a clear legacy statement allows me to say yes or no to things depending on how it aligns with that statement.

Know the difference between calculated risks and reckless risks—I categorize risk-taking as either calculated (alternatives and consequences are understood before taking an action) or reckless (forging ahead without understanding alternatives and consequences). Look, risk taking is a part of life. The question is whether you've thought through the alternatives and consequences and know what is likely to happen under each alternative. Make sure to utilize a coach to help validate your thinking.

Run to good opportunities, not away from bad ones—I've seen a lot of people make life decisions to leave a bad situation only to go to an even worse situation, then regret it. When you're evaluating making any life change, consider the pros and cons of each alternative. I have an assessment tool to help you evaluate decisions across nine crucial life elements here.

Understand that business ventures can ruin relationships—I lost my best friend at the time due to a bad business deal. We went into it with the best of intentions, but naively didn't consider the possible impact to our families if things didn't work out. It affected not only me, but my wife and kids. If you go into business with a friend, be prepared to lose the friend.

Courtesy of Lonnie Pacelli

Lonnie Pacelli is an accomplished author and autism advocate with over 30 years experience in leadership and project management at Accenture, Microsoft, and Consetta Group. See books, articles, keynotes, and self-study seminars at

© 2021 Lonnie Pacelli

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