The Rolodex of Experience

Recently, my colleague, Ernie, and I were discussing the familiar process of receiving a call for assistance by another professional outside of our department.As we discussed the specific item at hand, Ernie made a spontaneous observation that captured our roles so well.  He told me, “Every time we are asked to help, we need to flip though the rolodex of our experiences to get to an idea of what we can offer…”.

That concept stuck with me for the next several days, and as I returned to it periodically, I found a deeper meaning and much larger structure to what Ernie was getting at.

You see, what he was describing—and what we as leaders often do so quickly and in many cases with little awareness of what is occurring—is that when we are called upon for advice, information, direction or guidance we inevitably rush through the experiences we have in order to find a helpful example, resource or concept we can contribute to our friend or colleague.

And yet, much like a Rolodex, our memories are in fact also categorized in a manner that uses groupings and subgroupings like genre, discipline, function and skill/expertise as separate arenas from which we can easily access, sift through some familiar themes and then arrive at the best set of information, perhaps even a second reference, we can offer.Briefly returning to these compartments I spoke of, they could loosely associate themselves in the following way:  genre—personal life, profession, faith/religion, interests; discipline—professionally trained subjects matter, such as an attorney addressing the variety of law or an architect considering various residential or commercial structures.  Function could mean the particular role or position one may have in any organizational setting, from family to corporate responsibilities; and the skill or expertise could define areas of significantly-advanced knowledge of a particular ability, such as a police officer whose expertise may be in traffic investigations, or burglary crimes, or forensics.  It’s very similar to that Rolodex that once sat on our desk (okay, some of us still have them, good for you!)—the Rolodex is alphabetized or numbered, and so too are the entries in each area.

This aggregating of similar types of experience and knowledge is not only a matter of ease for us to get to the information that will help our colleague, it is also a reassuring process when we can swiftly but sufficiently provide information that will equip our friend with the usable knowledge and confidence to move ahead and successfully handle their task.  The successes that come from our supportive actions like these to our coworkers and peers also reinforces our own quality of retained knowledge, for we are able to add the awareness that our suggestions were meaningful and contributed to a successful outcome in a new arena and setting.

Which brings us back to that Rolodex Ernie mentioned.  While those old, familiar forms of keeping key reference information in a file system have given way to electronic versions of today that are easily searchable and can be structured exactly as we wish, the reality is that our palette of experience is very much like the Rolodex and much less akin to the contact list in your mobile device.

That’s because a Rolodex is deliberate; it requires us to scan a variety of items even when we can instantly begin with the genre and discipline already defined.  Where an electronic device might be able to recover a set of possible matches to your quest for a particular item, our Rolodex of experience performs a series of analyses while we ponder the request of our friend—and it does so in seconds.  We are able to qualify the approximate range of the issue, associate likely types of persons and circumstances we often find involved in the issue, and we can determine both successes and other outcomes as we discuss the challenge with our coworker—in real time.

The other marvelous thing about our Rolodex of experience is that we never stop filling in some key points, concepts and even people onto those imaginary cards in our brains.  Personally, I’ve never filled a Rolodex completely; I’ve never used every card in the file.

I’m hoping that the Rolodex of my experiences that I maintain in my mind will always be ready to add to and more importantly, ready to draw from.

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