Limits to learning from success

It’s more effective to learn from failure than success. Possibly more painful, certainly more reliable.

I had early success as a sprinter. Strategy is simple at 100 yards. Drive out of the starting blocks, stay in your lane, don’t look left, don’t look right, run as fast as you can, run as smoothly as you can, focus on the finish line. Repeat until you lose.

If (when) you do lose, tweak something until you win again. Don’t even think about looking to your left or right. Try a new pair of shoes or spikes. Run through the finish line. Lean a little more. A little less.

You learn from what you repeatedly do. Run a bunch of sprint races and you learn that set of lessons. You can see that this might not produce the life lessons you need. Not that you can appreciate it at the time. If you take these lessons into the rest of life, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.

Very little in life is as simple as a sprint. But you can fake a lot of life with the simplicity of sprinting. If it’s the only strategy you know and you generally get away with it, it can take a very long time to recognize that there might be easier or better ways to get the same results. Or possibly even better results. But the first thing you need to see is that there are other options. All or nothing is appealing in its binary way. But it closes off as much as it opens.

The problem with these lessons, however, is that they are embodied. They operate at a level deeper than lessons from books or wise counselors.

You’re told “life is a marathon not a sprint.” But running a marathon is a lot of long and hard work. And training that is equally long and hard. You nod politely and continue to compete by sprinting. You can actually run pretty far just by sprinting if you’re okay with breaking things up into bursts of effort coupled with equally short bursts of recovery.

But you aren’t building other capacities that you will need later. Worse, you can’t yet see that there are capacities you are missing. You have to trip over limits to see that they exist. Real learning requires failure as well as success. Probing for limits takes courage that I’ve sometimes refused to summon. Why try a new strategy when one more sprint might save the day?

Maybe saving the day should no longer be the goal.





Does it need to be slow and steady wins the race?

“It’s a bit unorthodox, but it will speed up your rehab.”

This was nearly sixty years ago, so consider this a reconstructed version of a conversation in the Emergency Room with my first orthopedic surgeon.

It was late January and I had spent most of the last twelve weeks in casts. I had broken my femur in a football collision. During a practice no less, so no sympathy from the sidelines. The first cast was a body cast that started at my ribs and went down my right leg to my toes. That was then replaced with a leg cast from hip to toes. That cast had been removed ten days earlier and I was learning how to walk again.

If you immobilize a joint for twelve weeks it’s going to freeze up. You’re also going to lose muscle mass. You go to physical therapy to rebuild the muscle mass and restore full range of motion to your knee and ankle.

You also start hobbling around to get back into the rhythms of regular life. A few hours earlier, I had gone to watch my classmates playing basketball. As I was leaving the gym, I limped onto a patch of ice in the parking lot and fell.

Two things happened. I broke my fall (and my wrist) by reaching back as I fell. I also twisted my leg underneath me. Now, I was back in the Emergency Room to discover whether I had done any new damage to my leg.

What I had done was to break loose the adhesions in my knee, restore full range of motion, and compress weeks of rehab into a few seconds. Scarcely the recommended plan of action. But effective in its own warped way.

The danger here is to confuse good fortune with strategy and discipline. My internal sprinter was happy to cross this finish line ahead of schedule. That slowly maturing part of me that hates they very thought of a marathon wonders whether this was a missed lesson. The more often you get away with powering through, the longer it takes to develop sustainable habits. The longer it can take to recognize that you might want to invest in developing sustainable habits.

That’s where I now find myself. Working through the implications of adding more “slow and steady wins the race” to my well-grooved habit of taking the shortest path.

When Old Knowledge Gets in the Way of New Learning

My wife, Charlotte, and I love to dance. One of our big expenses for our wedding was to get the Lester Lanin Orchestra to play for us.

We moved to Cambridge a year later. We thought it would be a fun idea to take swing dance lessons to expand our moves. It nearly ended our marriage. Apparently, we weren’t doing anything the right way. What worked for us worked for us. And it looked just fine to our friends. None of it, however, was by the book.

We made a smart decision and dropped that class. Learning to do swing dance “the right way” wasn’t worth the stress and strain. That was forty years ago, so I think we made the right call.

Our younger boy was in the U.S Marine Corps for eleven years. When he started at age 18 straight out of high school, he had never handled a weapon of any sort. The Marines preferred this to someone who came in with a set of bad habits. Derek routinely qualified as an Expert Marksman, which is the Corps highest standard.

Last month, Charlotte and I attended our second session of Modern Bridge Bidding. I played back when I was in university and we’ve been playing with her sister and my brother-in-law over the last year. Bidding in bridge has evolved from what I half-learned fifty years ago and my old knowledge gets in the way of laying down new knowledge. The principles remain the same, but the details have shifted.

All of this has me thinking about learning and what I already know. More particularly, about how what I already know interferes with learning new things. There’s an oft-quoted observation from Alvin Toffler that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

It’s this notion of “unlearning” that’s on my mind. I think we’re in general agreement that we could all get better at learning. But, how do we handle the unlearning component? I took a brief look at half of this problem (no pun intended) when I wrote about the problem of learning, bodies of knowledge, and half-lives. There I was focused on the problem of old knowledge being displaced by new knowledge. The part of the problem I missed was that obsolete knowledge doesn’t conveniently flush itself out of memories and skills.

Obsolete or not, existing knowledge and skill insists on sticking around; often deeply wired into muscle memory. When I’ve designed courses, I spend time identifying prerequisites. What should students already know coming into class that we can build on. How did those Marine instructors handle that recruit who thought they already knew how to shoot a rifle?

As a teacher, how much do you need to understand about the wrong ways to do things in order to teach the right way? As a learner, how do you begin to see the things you know that are preventing you from learning something new?

The paradox here is that I now have a vein of new knowledge to mine about unlearning.

Fitting tools to brains

I was somewhere in my mid to late 40s when I worked out that I had ADD. At that point I had a degree in Statistics, an MBA, a doctorate in organizational design, and was a co-founder of a successful consulting firm. I was also seriously depressed.

The simplest explanation was that I was simply the latest example of the Peter Principle; I had finally been promoted to my level of incompetence. Even it that were true, it wasn’t a conclusion I wanted to accept. I sought professional help.

I had worked with therapists before over issues of the heart and my role in failed relationships. Now we were taking a look at performance. I began to dig into the literature and to work with therapists who specialized in ADD. We experimented with the common medications None proved helpful.

ADD/ADHD is a bit of an umbrella term. My issues are not with attention deficits, they are with attention management. I tend to oscillate between boredom and hyperfocus. These states are triggered by my own interests and priorities. I am often oblivious to social cues and constraints on what I ought to be focused on and when. Put me in the right environment and hyperfocus is a superpower not a handicap. In the wrong environment the situation can reverse.

I’m not going to change how my brain is wired.

What I can potentially manage is my environment. Some of that entails choosing environments with an eye towards how they interact with my wiring. Whether I suffered or thrived was a function of how well my brain meshed with my environment. By happenstance and circumstance I had stumbled through a series of environments that played to my strengths. Could I make that something more intentional than accidental?

What can I do to make any given environment a better match to my wiring? This is the real promise hiding in the ferment of today’s technology. I say hiding because the creators of technology are pursuing as large a market for their wares as they can imagine. The notion that any one neurodivergent brain might craft its own fit between brain and environment is foreign. You have to learn to ignore 99% of the marketing pitches, which are all about fitting yourself into the norm envisioned by some product manager.

Your task is to adapt the tools to your brain, not your brain to the tools.

Doing the work when the work matters


The hardware in my shoulder is now old enough to vote.

What was to have been a short bicycle ride turned into a year long rehab project. We were “training” for a cycling tour of Ireland to celebrate my wife’s 50th birthday. We were learning how to use cycling shoes locked into the pedals and had been told to expect some falls as we got used to the new equipment. My first, and last, fall occurred 250 feet from our house. After a trip to the emergency room, initial X-rays, a sling, a long weekend waiting to talk to my doctor, a visit with my newest orthopedic surgeon, an MRI, and still more X-rays we had a correct diagnosis. I had a “closed, comminuted, fracture of the right proximal humerus”. In lay terms, I had transformed my right shoulder into a jigsaw puzzle that now needed assembling.

One bit of good fortune was that I am left-handed. The other piece of good fortune was that the surgeon was able to repair the damage with a steel plate and a distressing number of long screws that put all the pieces back into proper alignment.

After the surgery, it took nearly a year of physical therapy to get back to about 90-95% of full range of motion and function. I’ve had enough encounters with orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists over the years that I understood that you need to be diligent about putting in the work if you want to get the results.

Physical therapy is one of those areas where you can effectively monitor and measure progress. And where the entire system supports the connection between effort and results. I’ve become skeptical about the apparent simplicity of this equation. We like to pretend that this connection between effort and results is universally true. Do the work, get the results. How do we tell that we’re in a setting where the equation breaks down? Where do we learn to see situations where we’re better served by taking a broader look? Can we do less work and get the same result? Better results? Different results we hadn’t even thought to ask for? Some people seem to have a talent for looking at existing systems and seeing new options. Is that a special talent or is it a perspective that can be developed?

The obvious answer is that this is the realm of innovation. And it is a realm that has attracted considerable study. But even here, we seem to want to celebrate effort. We’re very suspicious when someone tells us we’re working too hard. I’d be happy to get better at seeing times when I’m working harder than I need to. And learning to ignore the judgmental glances that hint that I’m not putting in the effort they deem suitable.

I want to get better at doing the work when the work matters. And not doing the work when it doesn’t.

Learning how to do what you already know how to do

Once upon a time I was the fastest kid in my school. I even had the trophy to prove it. Speed starts with being gifted the right kinds of fast-twitch muscles. Taking advantage of the gift requires work, of course, but it also depends on acquiring specialized knowledge. Knowledge that you are unlikely to discover through trial and error. What you need is someone with that knowledge and with skill at passing that knowledge along. Particularly to smart ass adolescents who already know everything. We call these people coaches and teachers.

When you run naturally, your heel strikes the ground first and then you push off the ball of your foot into the next stride. When you sprint, it all happens on the ball of your foot. Your weight is forward. It takes time to learn how to do this and to become comfortable. For a while, you have to think about how to do something that you thought you already understood.

Today, world class performance in a lot of fields starts with taking apart what you think you already know. Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump by wondering what would happen if you went head and shoulders over the bar first instead of feet first.

Innovation starts with inquiry.

It starts with asking what if? This is trickier than it looks. While there may not be any stupid questions, there’s a lot of evidence that there are stupid answers. Lately, I’ve become a bit more suspicious of questions as well. Questions have to be asked in good faith and you must be willing to accept the answers produced.

Here I try to keep Richard Feynman’s admonition in mind:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Possibilities for Growth

My voice changed early. It dropped an octave or two long before any of my peers. When it was time to learn new hymns in chorus, the solution from the nuns was to tell me to be quiet. My takeaway was that I had no natural talent for singing. My voice was not worthy.

I pushed that interpretation a bit further, concluding that I was not to be heard in public. Quips and side commentary in class could be a fun game, but using my voice at volume was not.

Come high school I was pushed into situations where I was expected to speak up. Whatever natural reservations I might have had about public speaking were amplified by this history. Writing was fine, just don’t ask me to stand up and share.

Late in my high school career, I started into the science fair thing. The research and writing part was fun. Then I found out I was expected to talk about my work as well. Much less fun. Fortunately, my teachers and advisors were not interested in whether I was having fun. Nor did they consider public speaking to be a matter of talent but one of skill. And practice. So I practiced and I got feedback, Then I practiced some more and got still more feedback.

One of my classmates and I took the top two spots in the St. Louis region and traveled to Huntsville, Alabama to present our projects. More rehearsals. More feedback.

Repetition plus feedback builds competence.

Competence begets confidence.

Today we have the notions of fixed versus growth mindsets. Those didn’t exist in 1971. But Benedictine monks had their own notions of what young men should be able to achieve given motivation and feedback. Nor were they particularly interested in the opinions of the young men in their charge. Their expectations ruled, not yours.

Since those days, I’ve been on lots of stages and in front of many audiences. Life is more interesting if you subscribe to the notion that growth is possible. This is true whether it’s your own growth or that of others.

Learning to See

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

The updated version of an older quip; “I’ll believe it when I see it.” A study of human perception or any familiarity with today’s media environment, however, should convince you that “I’ll see it when I believe it” is more accurate and more illuminating.

When I was about eight, I began to complain that I couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard. The nun’s simple response was to move me up a row in the classroom. When I continued to complain after reaching the front row, someone finally thought that a trip to the optometrist might be a good idea (this was circa 1961 when routine vision screening wasn’t the norm in elementary school). A few weeks later I had my first pair of glasses with a strong prescription.

I recall marveling on the drive home. It had never occurred to me that you were supposed to be able to read street signs from inside the car. The wider world wasn’t fuzzy after all.

I was doing just fine in school. If I hadn’t mentioned something, who knows how much longer it might have taken to discover my weak eyes. Nobody could see the problem until they believed what I was saying.

Although I was doing fine, I was working harder than I needed to. I was overpowering the problem rather than solving it effectively. Can’t see the board, move closer. Still can’t see it, move closer still.

What’s been on my mind lately is what lessons did I take away from this experience without seeing them at the time.

There’s the obvious lesson that effort is rewarded. Most of our systems hammer this lesson home. I think there’s a second, more subtle, lesson. If the results are good, then the effort was well spent. Because effort is worthy it’s hard to ask what can be accomplished with less effort. Powering through is an easy strategy to understand and to implement. “Working smarter” makes for a nice slogan but is much more difficult to put into practice.

I’ve certainly been guilty of trotting out the slogan. I suspect I still have a lot to learn about putting it into effective practice. I did take a look at this quite a while back with a look at how we might go about balancing diligence and laziness. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at the question of how to put in less effort.

Laying Down a New Rhythm

Many decades ago I was a pretty fair track and field athlete. Not world class, but competitive within my environment. Put a finish line in front of me and I would often be the first to cross it.

I was a sprinter. The promise of a finish off in the distance wasn’t good enough. I needed to see the finish line.

There was craft and technique to learn and to practice. I can still remember my father’s lessons in how to make sure my energy was focused and directed on moving forward rather than wasted in extraneous movement. And coaches helped break down the components of a race, from getting out of the blocks to running through not to the finish line. But the essence was to attack the goal in front of my eyes.

This simplicity took me a long way on the track and much of my professional life as well. As long as I could see a finish line, everything else was easy. As the world and my life got more complex, I was able to find suitable finish lines to focus on. And to seek out environments and coaches to help with craft and technique.

That simple strategy has run out of track. I’ve always hated the adage “it’s a marathon not a sprint.” I still long for sprints but it’s long past time to take a deeper and broader look at how to run the races that I now face. Starting with the recognition that race is the wrong metaphor to build on. It’s too thin a slice of all that is going on.

Rhythm and cadence are the words I’m thinking about now. What can or should I be doing to establish a cadence of doing the things that will more consistently lead to outputs and results that please me? Over the next several weeks, I’ll be placing myself in an environment to help me work through these questions.

The goal is not simply to cross the finish line of this particular race. It’s to engage in the first few iterations of what I hope will become a sustainable rhythm.

You never start with a clean sheet of paper

A clean sheet of paper is an oft-invoked image during design efforts of various stripes. Ignore what is happening now and imagine that there are no constraints on what you seek to create. Sometimes this strategy is explicit; often, however, it is hidden in the press to unveil the latest new, new thing.

If I’ve got a product or service that solves a real problem, I want to emphasize how good it’s going to be once you’ve put it into practice. If I spend any time at all on what you’re doing now, it’s only to highlight your pain and persuade you to get a move on to the promised land. If i’m fair to middling honest, I might acknowledge that you’ll have to put in some work to realize the benefits I’m promising.

For all that this is a default sales and marketing strategy, I think it is misleading, and possibly dangerous, in the realm of knowledge work. People with something to sell want you to start from a clean slate because it makes their job easier, not yours.

If you are turning out knowledge work on some consistent basis, then you already have some form of system or practice in place. You likely are all too well aware of your system’s warts and blemishes. The temptation to wipe everything clear and start over can be strong.

What is it, however, that you would be wiping clear? What you have now is a collection of practices and a body of work. Both contribute to your capacity for producing new work. Together they constitute a complex system that works.

This is a time to proceed with caution. Consider the following piece of advice that I encountered in Jerry Weinberg’s excellent Weinberg on Writing

It is always easier to destroy a complex system than to selectively alter it”
R. James

Both the practices and the body of work you have now evolved over time; they constitute a complex system. You are engaged in craft. Much of that craft may have been acquired by osmosis through multiple apprenticeships.

However acquired, you aren’t starting from a clean sheet of paper. However appealing new practices and techniques may sound, they have to be evaluated within the context of your existing practice and environment. Which means you need to invest in understanding your practices and your environment in some detail.

The question is never “am I doing X (building a second brain, linking my thinking, creating a Zettelkasten) the right way?”. The question has to be “how can I adapt this idea to my circumstances?”

You cannot function as a consumer here; you must accept your responsibility as a designer.