Mistakes are often seen as a fruitful way of learning. If you do a Google search for “Learning from our mistakes” – you will get a lot of hits. Quotations, articles, TED talks, blog posts, books, references to Bible and of course… Oprah.
I also thought for a long time that there’s nothing special about learning from our mistakes. We make them, learn from them and don’t repeat them. So what?
Then I saw this talk by Kevlin Henney couple months ago. (The failure part starts around 17:30)
Kevlin referenced to Henry Petroski’s “To Engineer Is Human” book on his talk. Based on this book, he talked about overgeneralization and context of a failure.
Let’s say we make a mistake, learn from it and aim at not making it again. Now, this might lead to the overgeneralization problem.
We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit on a hot stove lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore. (Mark Twain)
This was something I discussed briefly with Seriouspony (Kathy Sierra) on Twitter:
Kevlin also argued on his talk that:
When we learn from our mistakes, it’s highly contextual. We learn from our successes far better.
By mentioning the contextuality, he meant that our failures need to be happening in a context of successes. Then specific failures can be noticed. There are examples of this on the talk if you’re more interested.
Learning better from our successes?
Kevlin mentioned earlier that “We learn from our successes far better.” What did he mean?
First of all, he was referring to a study (by Earl Miller, Mark Histed & Anitha Pasupathy) which said (https://web.archive.org/web/20091222020319/http://www.asfct.org/documents/journal/2009-11/Vol1-2-9.pdf):
The assertion that we can learn something from every failure is often heard. This study by Earl Miller and his colleagues Mark Histed and Anitha Pasupathy of the Massa- chusetts Institute of Technology’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory tests that notion by looking at the learning process at the level of neurons.
The study shows how brains learn more effectively from success than from failure. The researchers created a unique snapshot of the learning process that shows how single cells change their responses in real time as a result of information about what is the right action and what is the wrong one.
Brain cells keep track of whether recent behaviours were successful or not. When a certain behaviour was successful, cells became more finely tuned to what the animal was learning. After a failure, there was little or no change in the brain – nor was there any improvement in behaviour. This research seems to support SF’s assumption that analysing why something went wrong is unlikely to lead to ideas about how to create a better situation.
I found an article by MIT News (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/successes-0729.html) that opened up the findings of the study much more. You might want to check that out if you’re more interested about this.
Despite the credibility of the study, it’s an interesting idea though. That we would learn better from our successes?
While ago I tweeted:
John Stevenson replied to my tweet:
Cognitive dissonance is a good point as it will help as in noticing when there’s a mismatch between what we have done and how it perhaps should have done, in our opinion.
Mistakes are though a matter of perspective. You’re applying some kind of oracle to the behavior or act that you call a mistake. Can you trust your oracle? Same of course applies to successes. Not being a mistake is also a matter of perspective.
Wrapping up my thoughts
This whole “learning from mistakes and successes” is still an ongoing process. I haven’t came up to any solutions, conclusions or deep realizations about it. But there are thoughts that I’m playing with at the moment:
- In order to learn from failures, they need to be buried among successes. Being the odd ones that are spotted.
- If we truly are learning better by doing something we consider successful, then making a mistake, should lead to changing the behavior to something we consider successful and will also prevent making the mistake again.
- Are you sure that the mistake you made, isn’t something that is a mistake only in a specific and unique context?
- While there needs to be thinking behind mistakes (why did it happen), there needs to be thinking also behind successes (why did it happen).
This is a subject that I’ve thought about here and there for a couple of months now. Hope it will give you something to think about.