Learning From Our Mistakes

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.


6 thoughts on “Learning From Our Mistakes

  1. Pingback: Testing Bits – 12/8/13 – 12/14/13 | Testing Curator Blog

  2. Hi Aleksis,

    This is a topic I’ve also been pondering. What I’ve observed is that when something ends up being a success, it can be difficult to be a critic and argue that it was a matter of luck and coincidences not just right decisions and actions. Not all successes are perceived as successes unanimously. The end result of some event may be positive but the way of getting there may be littered with stuff that doesn’t make it look like true success.

    I agree that it is very important to think why something was successful. But it can be difficult to convince people to look at the mistakes in the success. People tend to shortcircuit into thinking that if something ended well, it must have been done well (by them). And if they’re not interested in discussing the issues, you’re faced with the “but it all ended well” rhetoric.

    Examples I can think of are not specifically from testing context… some I can remember that are related to software development as well.


    • Hi Helena,

      Good pondering.

      As you said: “Not all successes are perceived as successes unanimously.”. I agree with this. I can also imagine how much differences there are between our perceptions. Total failure in communicating (in my opinion), can be a success for an outsider. Depending on how they define successful communication.

      All the hype that there is toward learning from mistakes, makes it a bit too black & white. Successes and mistakes are not something binary, that can be clearly viewed as one or the other. Going back to communicating, I might be saying to someone “I feel that you are not doing it in a correct way.”. Now depending on the context, this statement can have different outcomes. If someone will get frustrated and reply in a hostile way, perhaps we consider that we made a mistake? Or perhaps it will eventually lead to more open environment and could therefore be considered as success? Or perhaps this is an environment where people trust each other can speak freely about their feeling, so this was natural (success) way of speaking? Boundaries are not that clear.

      Personally I’ve been trying to be more open in retrospective sense. Sure, it’s natural to focus more on things we consider mistakes, but looking the whole picture from another angle can’t be a totally wasteful approach. One way to retrospect our successes, could be what Jerry Weinberg has said:

      “If you can’t think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there’s something wrong with your thinking.”

      This could be applied to an event or series of events, that we call a success. Think three ways that it could be considered as mistake. Now this could also be reversed:

      “If you can’t think of three things that might go right with your plans, then there’s something wrong with your thinking.”

      If we have made a mistake, we could consider three ways or situations that this specific mistake could be considered as a success.

      As I mentioned in my original blog post, this is an ongoing process. Hopefully I’ll be wiser year from now.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. In my experience learning a physical skill requires success – or at least small partial successes. Failure (doing it wrong) is good feedback (if you notice), but will not make you better.
    Perhaps the same applies to mental skills? So to learn from our failures we should do what we failed at correctly immediately after or at least visualise doing it correctly.

    • I like your approach on this.

      It’s also related to what I mentioned at the end of the post:

      “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.”

      Now this approach assumes that we’re actually succeeding when we think so. If it’s the opposite, then we’re just becoming better at failing.

      I’d like to find more research data on this.


  4. Why success always starts with failure- a quote from Adapt by Tim Harford. When you succeed you want to do more of it by tinkering the algorithm that worked. This works in a market where incremental improvement would sell but would not compete against innovative ideas. Successes are great but failures are even better. Thomas Edison failed 9000 times before light bulb was eventually available. Dyson vacuum cleaner was marketable after 6000 failures. Each failure gave both men new information they didn’t have before each failure. Failure gives you continuous improvement that success wouldn’t bring that for some may be the endpoint. As testers we should be learning from each test that fails and why and also by discussing with others that eventually feed into our learning. I am very sceptical about successes because it gives you false sense of security. There is good story about failure in a book Innovate or Die by Jack Matson.

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