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The Downside of Experience

There are numerous vocations and daily activities that could be considered extremely dangerous, such as firefighting, oil refineries, construction workers, police officers and so many more, but life itself can be dangerous if we are not aware of our surroundings. Some such things or places that would seem very mundane could result in tragedy if we are not maintaining situational awareness, such as walking into a parking lot at night, crossing a street, talking to a stranger or maintaining safety in your work environment, whatever environment you work in. Nearly every aspect contains some element of risk. Training and experience help us manage the risk and, hopefully, make better decisions. The goal is to gain as much experience as possible to improve skills. But there is a downside to experience as well.


Memory and decision making

Experiences are stored in memory and some experiences are more readily re-callable than others. However, even a memory you cannot recall is likely stored somewhere in your long-term memory bank. When operating in a high-risk, high consequence, time compressed environment your brain searches your memory stores for past experiences. The connection to past experiences then, in turn, guide decision making.

Luck or skill

Recall of past successes – both from training and actual situations – helps you to quickly determine a course of action (i.e., a pathway to success) when you are operating in a time-compressed environment. Your brain is good at remembering the outcome and path for getting there, but it’s not very good at assessing, in the moment, whether that path to success was a result of skill or luck. Rather, it just remembers the path.



Shortcuts and incompetence

mouse-shortcutPeople, sometimes, take shortcuts. There are many factors that contribute to why we do it. Urgency, complacency, overconfidence and laziness are a few of them. Regardless of the reason, when someone takes a shortcut and experiences success, the brain remembers the success and the pathway it traveled to get there (the shortcut).

Sometimes we, as people, are incompetent. Like shortcuts, there are many factors that contribute to why we are. Inexperience, under trained, improperly trained and a poor role model are a few of them. Regardless of the reason, when someone is incompetent and experiences success, the brain remembers the success and the pathway it traveled to get there (the incompetent behavior).

Habit formation

Habits are formed from performing tasks in repetition. The task usually results in a successful outcome, eliciting an emotional response of satisfaction and triggering the release of Dopamine. This aids in memory formation and helps forge the pathway to success. It’s the equivalent of creating the express lane on the highway. The express lane to memory allows you to get to your memory destination very quickly and recall what you need to do in order to successfully complete the task.

Dr. Gasaway’s Advice

The goal should always be to have trained and experienced personnel working for and with you, but not all training and experience is created equal. The quality of a person’s training and experience matters. When the training and experience are forged in best practices, those best practices will become the automatic performance under stress. When the training and experience are a result of shortcuts and incompetent behavior, those behaviors will also become automatic performance under stress.

The challenge is realizing when you are taking shortcuts or performing incompetently. This is not always obvious or intuitive to the person who is doing so. In fact, habits formed from shortcuts and incompetence can become the perceived best practice.

One of the best ways to see the light in your organization’s shortcomings is to have a safety audit conducted by an independent evaluator. Bring in someone from outside your organization who thoroughly understands safety and best practices and ask him or her to look at your department, business or organization to see if anything stands out as a concern.

Many companies would never dream of having an outside evaluation done because they think they already have it all figured out, or they don’t want an outsider coming in and telling them what they should be doing, or they don’t have the courage to face their own shortcomings, or they’re afraid of the criticism that will come when the evaluation reveals the opportunity for improvements, or… or… or…

Put any excuse you want to it. Just realize that there is a downside to experience forged in shortcuts, incompetence and luck. There are likely opportunities for your department, company or organization to improve, but you may not see it.

Action items

  1. Identify incidents, or potential incidents, where “luck” contributed to the outcome. Discuss training opportunities that can reduce lucky outcomes.
  2. Identify incidents where personnel took shortcuts, yet had successful outcomes. Discuss opportunities to eliminate shortcuts in task performance.
  3. Identify incidents where personnel performed incompetently, yet had successful outcomes. Discuss opportunities to eliminate incompetence.


If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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2 thoughts on “The Downside of Experience”

  1. Rich,
    Your SA training and ideas constitute the most practical and worthwhile training I’ve received since Dodson’s Reading Smoke in 2004. I’ve been lecturing for years on fire behaviour, reading smoke and size-up and have come to realize that SA forms the foundation to all of it. I preach your teachings every chance I get (and push your books & website too!). You’re a leader and I can’t thank you enough for your work. Really, really great stuff.

    Coquitlam Fire/Rescue
    Coquitlam, BC, Canada

    1. Kyle,

      Thank you for supporting my mission. I am trying VERY hard to make a difference. And very few people ever take the time to provide feedback. I really appreciate it.


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