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.





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