05 September 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do we learn from our success or do we learn from our mistakes?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing : do we learn from our success or do we
learn from our mistakes? I have written a short essay this time, I hope
you will also find it relevant.

In the meantime, Dimas has told me that he is now working as a taxi
driver (Licencia Municipal PM 100238) and I thought you might want to
make a note of his contact details in case you need a taxi. Also
important is that he is currently working the night shift, but check
with him for availability. These are the details: Dimas: mobile 627 219
316 email dimasobregon@hotmail.com.

Take care and see you Sunday



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Do we learn from our success or do we learn from our mistakes?

How we learn, is a different proposition from, how best to learn
something. So, how we learn is more of a neurological issue and how best
to learn something is more of a psychological issue. The question for us
is therefore what are we learning and what kind of knowledge is
accessible to us via our successes and our mistakes?

I shall assume that learning is an essential process in our life and,
furthermore, we have to learn different types of information or
knowledge in our life. I can further assume that different sorts of
information or knowledge are best learnt in a manner ideal for their
situation or context.

For example, rote learning might be used to learn lists or what the
Wikipedia article on rote learning calls foundational knowledge. The
periodic tables and the multiplication tables are instances which are
usually learnt by rote learning. But rote learning depends on memorising
rather than understanding or thinking. Rote learning is effective
because we get to know the information required in a rather short time.
But I can see at least two objections (there are more) to rote learning.
The first is that it assumes that all people have the same neurological
states and abilities to memorise the required information. The second is
that it is also an effective technique to teach inequitable doctrines,
such as political dogma or religious beliefs, to young or inexperienced

However, as the Wikipedia article points out, those cultures (eg. Japan)
who put a lot of emphasis on rote learning seem to do better at
international tests and contests. This brings me to the next issue. What
are we learning when we engage in a learning process? If we are using
rote learning to learn the main cases for contract law then we might say
we know what the cases are and we have immediate (more or less) access
to that list of cases. But does this make us clever lawyers or excellent
contract law lawyers? Probably not, I would hazard a guess and say that
it takes more to be a good lawyer than just knowing your case law. In
effect, there is a difference between knowing-that and knowing-how.

It seems to me that the key issue when we are asked to learn a
discipline such as law, medicine, chemistry and so on is to learn the
foundations of the disciple to the point of being intuitive knowledge
but also to have access to the complete body of knowledge of the
disciple followed by applying this knowledge in the context of the
problem at hand. The question we can ask ourselves how much foundation
knowledge should one know? But even more serious, a professional person
depends on access to the whole body of knowledge for that person to be
effective. How effective would a physician be without access to the
PubMed database? But of course, the learning process never stops because
the body of knowledge does not stop growing. Thus access to knowledge
and information is an important for us as learning itself.

In reality, maybe the situation is that when we come to learn the
foundations of a body of knowledge there would be a process of
mechanical learning and a learning through understanding and thinking.
Thus the difference between two candidates learning a body of knowledge
is their environmental, physical and psychological states. This theme is
well discussed by Sir Ken Robinson (Do schools kill creativity?) and Dr
John Medina (BrainRules)* so I won't discuss this idea in any detail. In
effect, Robinson suggest that the education system ought to develop the
creative abilities of children and Medina looks at the various
physiological and neurological states that help us learn efficiently and

However, there is something that Robinson says that is immediately
relevant for us. He says that today we "run our companies by
stigmatising mistakes" and that in education mistakes are the worst
thing we can make. He is not suggesting that being wrong is creative,
but rather, if we are not prepared to make mistakes we cannot hope to be

In effect learning from successes and mistakes is the very foundation of
what we call the scientific method (see Wikipedia and Google). We are
all familiar with this method: we collect evidence, through experiments
or observations, about the world around us to confirm or reject a
hypothesis. Thus every time we have evidence that confirms our
hypothesis we are encouraged to consider this as knowledge and then move
on to discover some more. And every time we find evidence that disproves
our hypothesis we either change the hypothesis or discard it altogether.
Since this is a really basic description of the method I won't consider
the issues of induction or paradigm shift.

The scientific method has so far worked very well. What is important
about the scientific method is that mistakes and failure are built in
the very system itself. Mistakes are a key element for the success of
the scientific method. Contrast this with dogma and beliefs based on
faith or indoctrination where change is unthinkable and failure an
abomination. Of course, political dogma and religious beliefs do change
and do fail but we are not allowed to say so.

But as Robinson's ideas imply, mistakes are fast becoming a taboo in our
community. We can see the evidence of this from the very serious, for
example pharmaceutical companies not too willing to publish negative
results of clinical trials, to the frivolous, the fuss surrounding a
public company when it fails to achieve the profits people expected it
to make.

I have assumed so far that what we are learning is both legitimate and
valid. I will consider learning in a context later. Thus, if we are
learning the periodic tables, a success would be to reproduce the
elements in order. And if we are learning the implications and
applications of a case decision in an court of appeal, success would be
a correct use of this case to solve a client's problem. But these
instances of success are straightforward and neutral. What if, however,
success was for something erroneous or inequitable? What if success
depended on applying some therapy which is not beneficial to the
patient? Or applying a dogma that goes against the rights of minorities,
children or women? Success, in other words, might achieve our objectives
but it tells us nothing about whether we have achieved the right, good,
equitable or realistic objective. Much as we applaud and strive for
success it is not immune from the problem of induction: there is no
logical reason why what happened in the past ought to continue tomorrow.
Success can therefore turn out into failure especially if it is not
based on equitable or reasonable foundations.

Mistakes are more immediate and maybe even more clear cut. Failure to
land the contract from a client is immediate and beyond doubt. Being
excommunicated from a religious community is decisive and clear cut. On
the other hand, mistakes can show us where things went wrong. For
example, we now know that flight has nothing to do with flapping or
feathers, but in man made machines what matters is the profile of the
wings. However, we know this because those who tried to build a flying
machine and failed kept on trying until they found the right solution:
or rather their peers and successors did. As Robinson points out,
mistakes are not being creative, but a necessity to explore and
experiment with new and creative ideas.

There is no doubt that the answer to our question is not an either-or
but both. Particularly because we need the lessons both successes and
mistakes have to teach us. Success saves us time and effort, while
mistakes show us the way, first, the way not to follow and then the
motivation to consider alternatives.

However, there are some contexts where the question is not whether we
learn from successes or mistakes, but what are the costs of success or
mistakes. If we're crossing a river and being chased by a crocodile, the
issue of learning from success or mistakes is rather irrelevant. If we
fail to cross the river before the crocodile reaches us then surely it
does not matter. And if we do succeed to escape the jaws of the
crocodile or reach the bank unscathed few would want to repeat the
experience. Some lessons are best not repeated not even if repeated
successfully the first time.

In life we are faced with many similar cases. What matters is not
whether we learn from success or mistakes, but whether we really want to
repeat the lessons we have learnt. But this is irrelevant to our debate.
What is relevant is whether our successes or mistakes are achieved in
good faith. Or whether we manipulated others to achieve our successes or
were coerced by others in our mistakes. In the same way that manipulated
experimental data would sooner or later be discovered, personal
successes or mistakes not done in good faith would soon catch up with us.

If we were coerced into following an inequitable dogma sooner or later
this state of affairs would become intolerable. And if we bribed an
official to promote our career our incompetence would sooner or later be

However, as with the scientific method, the emphasis in our life ought
not to be with success and mistakes, but with learning. And for those of
us who do not react well to being told what to do we are not alone. This
is what Winston Churchill had to say on the matter: Personally, I am
always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.

Take care


*Sir Ken Robinson, Do schools kill creativity?, (Video)

Dr. John J. Medina (Website)

Dimas Taxi service: mobile 627 219 316 email dimasobregon@hotmail.com

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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Do we learn from
our success or do we learn from our mistakes?

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