Learning from Success

Intriguing research from MIT has shown that when we are succeeding at a new task or learning something, our brain begins physically (or biochemically) changing.  Neurons start acting differently in ways that make doing the new task easier the next time.

Makes sense.  But much more surprising—the experiment demonstrated that the brain does NOT go through any discernible changes when we are failing at a task or after we fail.   We don’t automatically learn from failure as we do from success.

That’s a bit disconcerting, considering all the common wisdom and advice that some of the best learning comes from our mistakes.   Consider this classic quote from IBM’s early president, Thomas Watson, Would you like me to give you a formula for success?  It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.

Ignore Failure?

So does that mean we should just forget about failures?  That seems like a rather extreme conclusion to come to, but some people already are working on that model.

Alex Bogusky is a partner in one of the giant ad and marketing agencies (producing some famous edgy commercials such as the “truth” antismoking ones a few years ago).  He should appreciate the new research as he disses ALL learning from failure.  For some, failure is not an option.  For Bogusky, failure never happened.

At his very successful firm, failure actually does of course happen (losing clients, bad campaigns), but they just eliminate all signs of ever having worked for that company as if it “never happened.”   As Bogusky said at a recent conference, “When failure happens we hardly recognize it.”  By this he means there are no discussions, no blaming, and no attempts to find lessons or ways of improving.

Failure IS an Option

The MIT study’s lead researcher Erich Miller comes to an opposite conclusion from Bogusky.   Earlier this year, he told Harvard Business Review: “Maybe the lesson is to know that the brain will learn from success, and you don’t need to dwell on that. You need to pay more attention to failures and challenge why you fail.”

Learning from failure may be more work, but still valuable.  After all, think about all the biographies and stories you’ve heard about people making the biggest and most successful changes in their lives after learning from a big failure.  Think about your own life too.  Maybe we don’t hear as much about learning from success because that doesn’t take the same effort and is far less dramatic.

We can also incorporate Bogusky’s ideas by focusing most of our attention on doing well rather than on overcoming what was unsuccessful.

We know that high expectations and seeing success in others tend to lead to better results.  For instance, there’s the well-established Pygmalion effect.  In studies of this effect, teachers at the beginning of a school year are told certain students are expected to grow and learn a lot and do well as determined by evaluation tests.  But these students were randomly chosen.  There was no reason for them to perform any differently than the other students.  But these students did do much better than the other students, as the teachers unconsciously did things to encourage and help them more than the others.

So maybe there’s a solution in setting up a culture based on honoring and encouraging success and downplaying failure and especially blame.   At the same time, a well-facilitated meeting where people see what can be learned from losing clients or poor performance can also be invaluable.

What do you think?  Do you feel you learn more from success or failure?  Let me know what you think.

If you want the more technical details, you can find the study in the journal Neuron (June 6, 2009.  The article has the snappy title:  Learning Substrates in the Primate Prefrontal Cortex and Striatum: Sustained Activity Related to Successful Actions)

Comments are closed.