The School of Hard Knocks… Are You a Graduate?

FROM THE APRIL 2014 ISSUE

Value of on the job experience in the contact center
Illustration by Nick Barrett

The “School of Hard Knocks” is an idiom that means the (sometimes painful) education one gets from life’s usually negative experiences. It is contrasted with formal education and was coined by Elbert Hubbard in a piece he wrote about himself for Cosmopolitan in 1902.

Let’s face it. Whatever other degrees one might possess, a degree from the School of Hard Knocks is equally hard-earned and just as relevant in terms of achieving professional goals. This school has few similarities to other schools. There is no specific “campus,” no rigorous admissions process, no endowments and no administration. However, there is TUITION. It usually comes in the form of hard-hitting personal lessons that result in some kind of loss. It matters not whether it is lost opportunity, money, position, respect, friendships or reputation. What does matter is that each lesson is very expensive indeed!

Our formal education teaches us many theories, philosophies and disciplines. When we apply that knowledge professionally it often falls short. In the workplace, we may hire the wrong person (“easy to get is hard to get rid of”), create a dumb policy, miss a deadline, get fired, accept the wrong position, do something stupid or get too drunk at a company outing. The list is nearly endless. The key to the lesson is in recognizing the behavior and learning from it. Otherwise, a hole is dug that will eventually be filled with anger, bitterness, blame and a lifetime of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Wow, that sounds horrifying! I think that is because it is! Working in the contact center and customer care arena is an Ivy League learning opportunity in the School of Hard Knocks. Consider these demands: the fast pace, the constant change, the close quarters, the leadership and the challenges related to budget, technologies, processes, procedures, products and services. The good news is that the demands also offer learning opportunities at every level.

The No. 1 key to an advanced degree from the School of Hard Knocks is self-awareness. Self-awareness helps us make decisions that align with what we want and what we are good at. It also helps us recognize when we have made a mistake and gives us the courage to admit that mistake and move on. Those lacking in self-awareness are more likely to fall into a lifelong pattern of blaming others for things not working out. I have seen grown-ups actually continue to blame their parents for skills, qualities or insights they lack. Well, at some point, learning a lesson is the ONLY way out of blaming.

Self-awareness is the key to insight; insight is truly the first step to learning. If we knew all the answers, we would never make any mistakes. To be successful, however, we must recognize our errors and learn valuable lessons that can be applied in the future.

For those working in the close quarters of a contact center, it is important to invest in learning. Opportunities abound! For example, when feedback is offered, it is a time to learn; if you don’t like the feedback, it is time to learn how to communicate your position in a professional manner. If your teammates are accusatory, spiteful and nasty and want you to share their temperaments, you must learn to decline. This protects your own integrity. Going along with behaviors you don’t believe in is a recipe for disaster! Yet we hear all the time about folks who “didn’t know how to avoid it” or “got caught in the moment.”

Self-awareness has an additional requirement. It is the fundamental preference for an OPTIMISTIC outlook. It is certainly a rarity to find an insightful pessimist. The insight of pessimists generally results in blaming others for having done wrong and using rumors, innuendo and even flat-out lies to spread their beliefs. Optimists are more likely to evaluate options when making decisions. They may even evaluate the results of a decision already made that perhaps did not turn out well.

The actual “lesson learned” is the most significant differentiator between the optimist and the pessimist. The optimist sees options and moves away from negative emotions associated with the “tuition” paid while learning the lesson. The School of Hard Knocks tends to graduate optimists and hold back pessimists. Those folks never seem to learn; they repeat the same mistakes over and over. They will never graduate from the School of Hard Knocks or benefit from its lessons!

We all face another huge challenge in the School of Hard Knocks. It seems that each of us must be our own teacher. We are the only ones truly capable of transforming a disappointment into a lesson and a mishap into an opportunity. It doesn’t really matter what others tell us. The fact is that until we can say to ourselves, “I just paid a hefty tuition bill for that stupid move,” we will not be able to really accept the lesson. Learning comes at a cost; it is an investment in the future because the more we learn the less likely we are to repeat the same mistake.

I, for one, have paid hefty tuition bills to the School of Hard Knocks in my life and in my career. I believe I have earned my Ph.D.… in results! And you can, too. Just take responsibility, break negative patterns, remain optimistic, evaluate options and learn the lessons. Accept the cost of tuition and move on!

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FROMContact Center Pipeline April 2014
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Kathleen Peterson

Kathleen M. Peterson is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer of PowerHouse Consulting, Kathleen is an acclaimed Contact Center consultant and recognized industry visionary. She offers a refreshing and sometimes challenging philosophy to positioning the Contact Center as the true lifeline of the enterprise—believing that vision, brand, leadership and execution combine to deliver a powerful customer experience. Kathleen has emerged as one of the most sought-after experts and consulting partner in the field of customer experience working with the world’s top customer-focused companies, and is published widely in the most prestigious industry journals in the U.S. and abroad. As a featured speaker at conferences and Fortune 500 companies, she has shared her humor, knowledge, and experience across four continents, including Contact Center conference keynotes in the United States, London, Paris, Turkey, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Kathleen also served as Conference Chair for the North American Conference on Customer Service Management.