I clearly remember this incident from my college days. I had just gone through something that I considered an utter failure on my part. (In the end it had almost no impact and expanding on it does not add to this story.) I was very down on myself and was in a contemplative state of mind. It was in this state of mind that I found myself in a temple. I was sitting in the back of a large hall, brooding and just being miserable in general.

It so happened that a holy man was visiting the temple at the same time. I must have aroused some curiosity in him as he walked right across the big hall to chat with me for no other reason. He wondered if I was alright and if there was something that was bothering me. My first reaction was that there was no way I was going to share anything with him; for one, what if he ridiculed me? I tried to say something to the effect of no but my face must have betrayed me. He refused to leave and kept on engaging in some talk until I decided that I wanted to share what I was thinking about. After listening intently, and some kind words, he gave me an alternative way to look at my failure. In summary, here is what he said:

While failures can create a low at the moment, and some failures do more so than the others. But once we are past the immediate moment, one should try and push them to the background. One way to do this is to think of them as a dull toothache. Trying to completely forget it might be counterproductive; sometimes the mind gains from being able to process a failure. So, try to keep it there, just not give it the center stage.

His point about the dull toothache was that it would likely not stop anyone from doing something that needed to be done. In fact, when one is engrossed in doing something really interesting the pain no longer registers in the mind. One might be involved in some activity over a stretch and only be reminded of the pain when the tongue decides to go and explore the area. (Is it really the tongue that decides?). His insight was to use this occasional probing in a very deliberate manner, with the intent of learning the appropriate things from the experience. For example, what were the things that one could have prevented by doing things that were under their sphere of control. And what other factors contributed to the situation that were not really under one’s control. This deliberate probing allows someone to avoid repeating the same mistakes. At the same time, learning to not do the probing so often that it has a debilitating effect and prevents you from doing something you want to do now or in the future is just as if not more important.

This same way of thinking can be extended to successes as well. Remembering the successes can get someone in the right frame of mind and also provide the learning needed to increase the chances of similar success in the future. But, dwelling on past successes too much is a key ingredient in the recipe for future failure.

Perhaps it was the setting, perhaps it was my state of mind, and more than likely it was willingness to help me that made this stick in my mind. I have used this advice many times in my personal and professional life since.

Over the years, I found that this advice is also applicable for the field of supply chain forecasting and planning. Very often I work with companies that are driving a decision for the future based on a past spectacular success or failure. More often than not, the negative anecdote has more lasting effect than the positive one. By constantly accessing these anecdotes and experiences, they give too much weight to an incident from the past. So, is there a technique of converting these into the so called dull toothache; able to be used when relevant, and yet ignored when not helpful. I have found that this does not happen until a very key thing happens.

Businesses that invest in a way to record these anecdotes and the associated learning in a library of sorts for easy future access are able to achieve this in practice. I like to call this library the business knowledge repository. Rather than relying on the memory of key individuals, the repository is the place where key situations, assumptions, responses are recorded. As needed, organization is able to access this information and apply it in a meaningful way. An interesting side effect is that by offloading it into this library, the collective brain of the organization is able to suppress the need to recall the anecdote inappropriate situations.

I am sure all of us have a different version of this advice that says to focus more on the present and not get caught up in the past. What is your version?

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