#141: The Power of Reflection

Well, we’re into the final weeks of the year. Cicero’s reflection that “It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment; in these qualities old age is usually not only not poorer, but it is even richer” felt appropriate.

We’re in the old age of this year, it is time to reflect. The world’s energy is turning in that direction. Let’s follow.

The New York Times has selected its top ten books for the year. I was happy to see Zambian author Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows on the list (I wrote about her interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o here). And Brittle Paper has published their list of the hundred most notable African books of 2022 (thank you Ruqayya Bryce for alerting me to it).


Today’s strategy section draws on a Harvard Business School Working Paper, Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning.

The paper’s authors start with an insight that we know but often forget, “the accumulation of experience tends to be associated with substantial performance improvements. The very idea of learning curves rests on the observation that productivity increases with experience, both at the individual and the organizational level”.

In other words, if we want our performance to improve, acting, and gaining experience, are integral parts of the process. If we want to improve the performance of our teams, we need to create ways for them to act, to gain experience.

Both the literature they review and the experiments they conducted, show that reflection – “that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience” – led to improved performance.  Cicero has been right for 1,900 years.

Your business has almost a year’s experience behind it. When will you pause to extract the benefits of reflection?

Their research shows that codifying your reflections further improves your performance.

In other words, step one is reflecting on your lessons from the experience. Step two is detailing the process that you would now follow given your new knowledge. You codify your process. What would you still do? What would you do differently? How would you do it differently?

You don’t need a whole strategy process for this. Share this letter with your teams. Ask them to pick 5 wins from the year. Reflect and codify. Your business will be instantly wiser.

They conclude that “Reflection builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning’ and that when “individuals experience self-efficacy in an activity, they select more challenging tasks, exert more effort, and have less adverse reactions when faced with difficulties ultimately showing higher achievement”.

Simple really. Act. Reflect. Codify. Repeat. You’ll improve.


You can do this for yourself.

Think about the year.

List all the moments of achievement, victory, and contentment. In short, all the good stuff.

Remember that ‘good stuff’ can also be those challenging moments that you overcame – when you defused a conflictual situation, or perhaps you made a mistake and then corrected it.

Remember too, the good stuff can be small, the time that you were intentionally kind to a colleague, the time you bought a friend the perfect gift, the time you rewrote an email to be more generous (or less grumpy). Actually, that’s big stuff, but you know what I mean.

Write them down.

There’s no correct way to do this. I take one page where I list everything that I spontaneously remember. Then, I have twelve pages, one for each month of the year. In that way, I can see what I am immediately drawn to. Then, I go back to my appointments, my diary, my notes from that period, and inevitably the memories start to cascade. There’s always more good stuff than I spontaneously remember. It’s my way of reminding myself that I tend to remember the tough moments more easily than the good ones.

Then reflect and codify.

Reflect: What actions did you take that led to that outcome? What skills, knowledge and relationships did you draw on? Who supported and helped you in that achievement? How do you feel about it?

Codify: With the benefit of hindsight, how would you approach that same situation? I find that I often fail to maximise on ‘wins’. That might be true for you. Building on wins and good luck is a powerful way to accelerate momentum.

Remember this “… the research into high performance in any profession or endeavor reveals that excellence is idiosyncratic. The well-rounded high performer is a creature of theory world. In the real world each high performer is unique and distinct, and excels precisely because that person has understood his or her uniqueness and cultivated it intelligently (Nine Lies About Work).

Deepening your understanding of the ways in which you are excellent is a powerful route to peace, happiness and increasing mastery.


I had two possible endings for today’s letter. I gave up trying to decide which was better. Let me know which you prefer.

The first came from Katherine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Personal History. Reflecting on a childhood trip to the Canadian Rockies she shares this excerpt from her mother’s diary:

“The fatigue of the climb was great, but it is interesting to learn once more how much further one can go on one’s second wind. I think that it is an important lesson for everyone to learn for it should also be applied to one’s mental efforts. Most people go through life without having ever discovering the existence of that whole field of endeavor which we describe as second wind. Whether mentally or physically occupied most people give up at the first appearance of exhaustion. Thus, they never learn the glory and the exhilaration of genuine effort…”

I loved the reminder of a second wind, that beyond that initial feeling of ‘I can’t do, I should give up’ are untold possibilities. I was uncertain about the ‘most people’ formulation. I think that many people try to the point of exhaustion, but not all of us are able to find ways that unlock our second wind.

I also liked it because it tied neatly to this Sydney Harris quotation, “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable”. So, I could end by saying that I know that you are tired but pick something from the year that you haven’t yet done and do it this week. You will feel better.

My second choice was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he writes “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

Reflecting on your life, making your achievements visible to yourself, is a way of loving yourself. It linked nicely with the idea of performance being idiosyncratic, that by becoming aware of who you are, the ways in which you are already excellent, you can connect with the potential that lies in the lee of your second wind.

I’m still not sure what the better ending is…I think I prefer Frankl, but really do like the idea of second wind…

All the best


PS: Next week is our last letter for the year. I am also fully booked until Feb. If you want to work with me next year, drop me an email and we’ll set up a time for an introductory conversation in January.