Do we learn more with successes or with failures?
When I read Hugo’s post about “leverage your experience to enhance your learning experience but beware to not limit yourself” I didn’t hesitate to share my point of view. “Lucio’s syndrome” is something familiar to me. It made me think about good and bad experiences in life, and whether we learn more from successes or failures. As I challenged Hugo for a post about this topic, the challenge “bounced back” to me, and this is how I ended up having the pleasure to contribute to this blog.
Like anyone on planet earth, my life is filled with big and small successes and failures. They tend to happen at all levels. In my personal life, I was lucky to cross paths with my wife and fall in love with her, but not before having a few heartbreaking episodes. Academically, I was a good student, but I failed at least once in some courses. Professionally, I was able to change my career twice, but as I’m always saying: “if I had been happy, I wouldn’t have changed.”
Probably fueled by the negativity bias (the asymmetry in how people use positive versus negative information to make sense of the world), I’ve always thought that I learned more with failures than with successes. Well, it might not be only because of an inner bias since several external factors contribute to this belief: I’m pretty sure that, during childhood, several of you had your parents “threatening” you to not repeat a mistake, such as not playing again with a ball in the living room, with the message being perfectly conveyed, received and executed; Or even in our professional lives, the moto “failures are fantastic learning opportunities” has been widely diffused and adopted, and sometimes are taken to the extreme as “the best learning opportunities” (I can’t be the only one to have to listen to this). Still, the question remains, do we learn more with bad experiences than with good ones? Before giving you my opinion, I will tell you what the experts have theorized.
A more “scientific” answer defends that learning is boost by successes because “… the dopamine release with positive reinforcement increases the chance of “learning” to occur and behavioral change to stick…” (1). Another theory relates to the emotional connection that we have with good and bad experiences since “… Successful experiences make us feel great. Failure makes us feel sad or angry. These emotional responses make it difficult to learn…” (2). Both articles contradict my first impression and reinforce my bias. I can somehow sympathize with these conclusions when, for instance, I look back at my first end-of-year evaluation with my manager in investment banking, following my first career change after 4 years working as a bridge engineer. The feedback I received made me so proud and was so unexpected, due to the harshness and coldness of the day-to-day environment on a trading floor, that I probably almost dopamine overdose, and will always remember it as something that helped me learn with my first-year outcomes.
Another ideology argues that “… After people fail on a task, it doesn’t matter whether they focus on successes or failures. They will learn so long as they do an after-event review… “(3). This idea changes the focus from good/bad experience to a contemplative moment, in which a person tries to understand the “why” behind any outcome. I think this argument leans toward bad experiences boosting learning, as these contemplative moments tend to, unfortunately, happen more often when things go south. Again, looking at my professional and personal life, my most relevant introspective and extrospective moments happened when something went wrong, either because I didn’t like the professional career I was following, or when I faced my wife’s resistance to living abroad. During these periods in life, I’ve learned a lot and I can’t categorize them as successes or failures.
These three approaches to “how we best learn” make me wonder about some of my biggest learnings in life and try to understand if they fit any of these two theories. When I decided to migrate, leaving family and friends behind in search of a better professional opportunity, I learned that in life you “can’t have it all” and that accepting that life is a constant trade-off exercise helps you to be happier in life. When I change my career to a sector outside of my expertise areas, I became a humbler person while my self-confidence was boosted (might sound contradictory, but this would need a new post to explain 🙂 ). In both these experiences, there were failures and successes, moments of joy and growing pains. I can’t specify if, in one case or another, what I’ve learned came from good or bad experiences that I had (most likely it came from both). Probably in your case, it happened the same. The biggest learnings you had might have started with something bad and were reinforced with something good, or vice-versa. I believe that is hard to dissect such a complex experience, such as one big learning, that marked us and stays with us for life, into smaller events, divided by “successes” and “failures”, and sum them all up to see which side wins at the end.
Thou I tried hard to find a scientific or sociological reason to defend that we learn more with bad experiences (I confess that I was pretty sure, and very biased, about this one before writing this post), I couldn’t discover any direct connection that would support this. I guess that the main conclusion is that we learn from both types of experiences, whenever we are opened to stop for a moment and reflect upon the journey we’ve traveled and that led us to a more positive or negative outcome (something I should probably do more often).
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