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Why Are You Still Trying To Learn from Your Mistakes?

February 25, 2014
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Failure has nothing to teach you. Don’t learn from your mistakes.

There is one and only one bit of useful, reliable information you can safely glean from failure: “that didn’t work”. Which is wonderful, because now you know to consider maybe not doing that any more. But that’s all you get in terms of valuable, actionable, safe information.

Nothing more.

In most cases, everything else is useless, or (worse) emotionally damaging. Any attempt to learn more from failure than that “that didn’t work” will thus only lead to more unnecessary pain and failure. Failure contains other information, but that’s a mineshaft just waiting to collapse on whoever goes down it.

What good will it do you to know how not to do something correctly? The infinite number of wrong ways? None at all.

Again, there are exceptions 1, but none of them apply to you. In general, failure is like stool. Both are thoroughly acceptable, perhaps even essential, by-products of processes. There is a great deal we could potentially learn from our stool as individuals, and I look forward to the day when our home toilets analyze it for us. But it’s not safe to just go handling human solid waste with your bare hands. There’s a reason we’re grossed out by it; there’s a reason we want to get and keep it far away from us. Absent the correct tools and expertise, you’re better off not handling your stool. Let someone else do it. That, or just flush it away. Get rid of it.

You learn from your successes.

I don’t know what impression you get from me as a person from reading my writing, but I am afraid. Of almost everything. Afraid of talking to people, afraid of offending people, and even afraid of writing…if I could curl up in a little ball and never have to interact with human beings again, I would actually do that. One day I might ;) . The weird thing is that I also like hanging out and parties. It doesn’t make much sense.

Anyway.

Much is made of the role of numerically massive, small, cheap failure in massive success. I’ve written about it rather excitedly myself. And I stand by what I wrote — because it’s true. 2 If you want to succeed, to become “a success”, to achieve mastery, then you need to fail more times than Joe Blow has tried; that is the arithmetic of success and it still stands. There is, however, a little misconception to clear up, namely the idea that you somehow learn directly from the failure. “Learn from your mistakes” and all that. Well, that’s a lie. You don’t. You can’t. Most people can’t. I can’t.

It’s too raw and painful to learn from mistakes. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. It just makes you over-cautious and more error-prone. Not to mention, how are you supposed to learn from a mistake, really? I mean, it’s a mistake — by definition, it contains erroneous information. Somehow you’re supposed to dig in there and find gold? Not likely.

Learning from failure is like trying to learn how to spell correctly by looking at typos. You could read whole books of typos, stately tomes of copious error written by dyslexic six-year-olds; it’d amuse you…wouldn’t help that spelling, though. This is why, by the way, I hate language books that show you common errors, especially the ones that show you errors first, as some Japanese keigo (敬語) guides are wont to do, although they are by no means alone in this crime.

By the primary-recency principle 3 alone, showing someone the wrong way to do something is the perfect way to get them to do it wrong. One time, back in high school, our pinko ;) history teacher spent like half an hour haranguing us on the evils of confusing “provincial” with “provisional” (as in “Provisional Government” and “Provincial Government” — Bolshevik revolution and all that). Being an avid dictionary reader from an early age, I always 4 had a relatively large vocabulary; if nothing else, I had never confused the words “provincial” and “provisional” — not even once. Guess what I starting doing though?

Learning from failure is like trying to learn how to cook good food by forcing yourself to eat bad food — painful, unnecessary and dubious in its effectiveness.

Learning from failure is like trying to learn how to be clean by being dirty. It’s bass ackwards.

Learning from failure is like trying to learn how to dance like Michael Jackson by studying everything except dance and Michael Jackson.

Learning from failure is like trying to get to your friend’s house by learning how to get to everybody but your friend’s house.

Maybe it “builds character” (whatever that means — I think it’s grownupese for “busywork that is not only boring but also emotionally painful”) but it doesn’t really help.

You don’t learn from failure, you learn around it. You bounce off it. You put it behind you. Because it’s just… churn. It’s a byproduct, like sawdust from cutting up timber or scraps of paper left over from wrapping up gifts. So there can be a lot of it, and you should be fine making lots of it — like egg shells to your omelette…it’s not a big deal. You just chuck it away and move on. You make the mistakes in large number, but you also discard them…in large number. There’s a reason why dumpsters are so big… ;)

Fire and forget. The only “lesson” in a failure is in the fact that a mistake was made, not in the content of the mistake. Nothing to see here. Move on. Take the next shot. Bullets are cheap (or should be, if you want to learn to shoot well).

You learn from success.

Any success. Of any apparent size. In your own life, or in someone else’s.

And they’re there. No matter how much of a screw-up you may think you are, you’ve got something good going on. You’ve got something that you’re amazing at. That you’re really good at. Right now. You have achieved mastery at it already. There’s a system that you’ve got working. It’s a thing of beauty. It puts Swiss clockwork to shame. And you did it. You do it. With astonishing regularity.

Maybe it’s how you make burritos to repeated perfection. Maybe it’s the way you do your hair. Maybe it’s how you make your bed 5. I don’t know.

Now, you probably don’t think this thing (or things) that you’re doing well are a big deal. That’s where you’re gravely mistaken. It probably won’t make the 9-o’-clock news, but you should take that as a compliment more than anything else. One success is the kernel for all success: the basic pattern is the same — if, that is, you’ll simply allow yourself to see it.

Simple and obvious example: You have learned and maintained at least one language really well already. In fact, you’re learning and maintaining it right now. This is your success pattern, if you’ll allow yourself to see it that way.

The problem with most people is that they don’t allow themselves to see it. Their misplaced modesty prevents them from seeing their own successes as successes. And as for the success of other people, they treat other people like morally superior creatures from another dimension, with whom they have nothing to do and from whom they have nothing to learn. “That’s fine for him, but he had talent; I’m a screw-up”.

What a terrible thing to think and say about yourself. I can’t really think of anything clever to say to that. So I’ll just say this: it doesn’t take any real intelligence to find all the ways that other people’s successful examples don’t apply to you (and it doesn’t get you anywhere pleasant either; it’ll get you places, just not places you’ll enjoy going or being). The real intelligence is in finding out how they do (apply to you), in finding the similarities, in finding ways to replicate the successful example in a way that suits you and your particular situation.

And that’s what will allow you to see how the methods that kids from Poland used to learn English could at least potentially apply to kids from wherever you’re from learning Japanese.

In a way, it call comes back to baking cookies. Of course you’re out of nutmeg, but that doesn’t instantly invalidate the recipe, your life and your chances at homemade cookies today. The Goody Two Shoes response is to give up like a freaking von Neumann computer because of one little semicolon. The human Bad Boy response is to forge your own cookie path, nutmeg or no nutmeg.

You learn from success. And it doesn’t even have to be your success or the success at the exact same thing (arguably, at a fundamental level, no two things are truly the exact same anyhow, so…everything is already an analogy…Pauli Exclusion Principle and all that)

You see, a success you can learn from. A success is full of information that is correct. Even the parts of a success that are “incorrect” are “correct” in that they at least didn’t prevent the success from occurring. You can’t say that about a failure; you can’t safely parse a failure for the good bits 6 any more than you can safely pick tomatoes out of your stool for use in another sandwich. A success, on the other hand, went right. It’s something you want. It’s correct spelling. It’s moonwalking. You want to imitate and duplicate and replicate and mass-produce it. You want to repeat it. You want it to happen again. You want to be able to do it again.

So go. Look at that success and others. See what the parts are. See how they move. See how you can make it happen again.

Will it always work? Will this process always work? Right out the box? On the first go? Ironically enough, no. That’s part of the fun, though — tweaking it until it does work just the way you want it. At worst, you’ll just produce some more sawdust. But that’s cool — only mills that aren’t working…don’t produce sawdust.

And maybe you can go one better and turn your sawdust into particle board: now you’re not simply recovering from failure, you’re profitting from it (hint: way better than “learning”…geez), which is exactly the kind of thing you want to be doing.

Notes:

  1. The airline industry does an amazing job of learning from its mistakes, and air travel keeps getting safer and safer even as more and more people travel. What I think this shows is that cool, detached, dispassionate, disinterested third parties can learn from mistakes just fine, but active participants are best off not poking at them too much.
  2. I remain deeply inspired by the exam strategy of this one kid who shared his story on Facebook: he got through college trying to fail exams — aiming to fail.
  3. of memory
  4. well, not always; I was born illiterate just like we all are.
  5. Yeah. That small. But success is success. Don’t knock it. Don’t knock the atoms of success. Matter is made of atoms after all.
  6. (again — too error-prone, too emotionally wrenching)
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9 Responses to Why Are You Still Trying To Learn from Your Mistakes?

  1. cel pintat de vermell on February 26, 2014 at 06:03

    I… You leave me speechless. So much energy and enthusiasm you have when you write. Your words work for anything, not just learning Japanese.

    I suffer from social anxiety and this s##t of bad thoughts, failures… make life a hell. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. It’s so difficult to make it go away and start thinking positive.

    But the thing is start. Right now.

  2. Erik on February 26, 2014 at 09:48

    “That’s fine for him, but he had talent; I’m a screw-up”.
    これは前の俺か?w 確かにAjattを始まった時そういう考えがあったけどさ。今はマイペースで日本語を遊んでいる。他人は関係ない。お前はお前だ。そして自分のやり方でするよ。何があっても「楽しい」は一番大切だ。

    • Erik on February 26, 2014 at 10:27

      やっぱ「日本語で遊んでいる」のほうがいい。。。ま、いいか。

  3. 魔法少女☆かなたん on February 26, 2014 at 12:14

    Afraid of almost everything but like hanging out and parties? Ha ha, it’s like I wrote this or something…

  4. Tom on February 28, 2014 at 07:29

    Maybe you guys can help me out.
    When do I learn fancy/more difficult words?

    I’m doing Russian all the time, for almost 4 months now, 4-10 hours a day, watching a lot of movies (since every movie is free on google in russian, this would typically be something I would continue if I am fluent one day).
    Although I notice improvement since I started, the improvement is somehow different then I expected. In stead of learning new words, I now recognize the words I already knew in more situations (and more often). Which makes me wonder… will I ever learn the difficult/fancy words? And do I need to (since I still can’t follow everything in a movie)? Do I need to switch gear and also read?

    I’m not doing any SRS because I’m to lazy, it just seems so much work (and a little boring).

    Regards,
    Tom

    • 名前 on February 28, 2014 at 10:03

      SRS is really a good way to learn that type of vocabulary. (I don’t do it anymore either, so I can understand where you’re coming from.

      Also, you should expand your environment. Don’t just focus on listening/watching; you should read too! It will help improve your language ability in different ways than listening will, and you can look up unknown words while you’re at it and learn them that way. (It isn’t necessary to look up every word, however. Just look up the ones that you want to.

  5. […] Why Are You Still Trying To Learn From Your Mistakes? […]

  6. DoomRater on April 8, 2014 at 06:28

    What a THOMAS EDISON way of thinking about things!

  7. three dots on June 23, 2014 at 09:15

    People say I’m naturally talented in learning and smart… it depresses me even more because I knowthat the only thing holding me back is myself. I could read almost all grade 2 kanji last year to and now I could write almost all of them. Which… really isn’t that much of an improvement. At all.

    There was the article about how the only person you’re worthy of competing against is yourself. AndI ffeel like I’m losing, and badly. When I first started learning Japanese, people told me not to because well, as a kindergarten kid I took Chinese lessons… and I sucked. Completely. But I remembered hating all the pronunciations and how the characters looked like really ugly scribbles. Then in junior high a friend introduced me to Vocaloid and I obsessed over understanding the lyrics and started learning some vocab through transliterating the lyrics. Then at the third year of junior high my school introduced Japanese as part of the language programme. Well of course I took it, and it turned out most of my classmates were more advanced than I am. I didn’t want to be left behind so I learned all 92 kana within 2 days. That’s when I realised that if I truly wanted to learn something, I really could. I remembered my friends’ confusion when they realised I could read kana just fine (if not a bit… or a lot slower with mistakes such as mixing さand き up and… ツソシンノ) when I thought kana was just a bunch of swirly characters barely a few days ago.

    The point is, before, when I wanted to do things, I actually got up and did it, or at least try to. Nowadays I just can’t and putting the slightest bit effort is so…

    I mean, whenever I watch an anime and find out that I could understand a whole sentence except for one word and the subtitles turn out to be screwed up, I still jot them down to search up later. Partly because it’s rare for me to get to watch an anime, so I feel I should make use of the opportunity to study (yes, I’m that sort of person) and partly because I truly want to know what the word means.

    But still I just feel like a failure in general..

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