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.

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.

A shaky reminder about ground truth

I haven’t posted here since before the Summer started. The simplest excuse (and it is an excuse) is that we’ve been traveling quite a bit.

Earlier this month, we were in Morocco in Bin El Ouidane. That put us 200 kilometers northeast of Marrakesh when an earthquake struck another 120Km to the southwest in the Atlas Mountains. We felt it where we were but much less intensely. There was some chatter in the hallways but things seemed to settle down pretty quickly. Woke up the next morning to news coverage about the earthquake “near Marrakesh”, which was our destination for that day. Our group met for breakfast and discussed what our options might be. Meanwhile our guide was not responding to messages or to a knock on his door. Mustafa eventually surfaced to let us know that we were still going on to Marrakesh, although we would be shifting to a hotel outside the Medina and likely adjusting some of our other scheduled activities.

Driving into Marrakesh, we saw families camped out on the median out of concern about aftershocks. That was the only evidence we saw as we pulled into our new hotel. The hotel seemed equally unscathed. The images on the news were much more disturbing. The next morning, we got to see for ourselves. We drove along the outskirts of the Medina and could see damage along the walls encircling the old city. We then walked into the main square and could see a damaged mosque in one corner. What we could also see that the news reports didn’t show was how concentrated the damage was and how tightly framed the shots were to highlight the damage.

The rest of our day played out much the same; a mix of concentrated damage and surrounding normalcy. Meanwhile, we were responding to anxious messages from family and friends who were hearing only one part of the story. From their distance, we seemed in the middle of a tragedy. From where we stood, the tragedy was still distant. That tragedy was still 120 km further away in the Atlas Mountains. We were mildly inconvenienced. People in the mountains died.

All of this has had me thinking about stories. Telling stories is always about perspective and framing; what do you highlight, what do you leave out. So too with consuming stories; what has been left out and why. Through it all, what you’re trying to tease out is ground truth.

Finding Your Voice and Honoring Your Sources


There is no new thing under the sun
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (KJV)

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.
William Ralph Inge

I’ve spent my career wandering back and forth between business and academe. One of the smartest hires I ever made (smart in the sense that she was smart and my decision to hire her was equally smart) will be rolling her eyes right now if she reads this. Opening with a quote annoyed her no end; two quotes will likely push her over the edge.

New ideas are the driving force now for both business and academe. How new ideas are treated, however, is quite different. In academe everyone cares about intellectual capital provenance. Ideas have a history and the history matters. There are a host of practices and norms for maintaining that provenance.

In business new ideas have been the purview of a handful of specialists, despite recent debates about patent waivers for Covid-19 vaccines (for example, With a Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver likely, time to rethink global intellectual property rules - CNN). What you can do with an idea is much more pertinent than where the idea might have come from. Academic practices for connecting new ideas to their history don’t have much of a foothold in this realm. Certain ideas become linked to names—Porter’s 5-forces, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Christensen’s disruptive innovation—but more often than not ideas simply appear without attribution or genealogy.

Why does any of this matter? Treating ideas as free floating entities becomes a problem as decisions are woven out of more complex, interconnected webs of ideas and analysis. You want to be able to deconstruct both successes and failures to be able to keep making progress.

Learning to fail

I grew up in the Midwest. It is as flat as advertised. Snow meant days off from school, snowball fights, and snow forts. Mountains were something I visited in the summer. That they sometimes had snow on top was of photographic interest only.

Life brought me to the East Coast and children brought me to ski lessons in my 40s. When I was 48, my youngest took up snowboarding and I decided to follow along. You don’t learn to ski or snowboard in a classroom; you do it on the slopes. So, you fall down a lot. Then you fall down less. What makes it work is instant feedback. That’s what good instructors offer. One of the best pieces of feedback I got was to accept that a snowboard run was nothing more than a connected series of controlled recoveries.

If you weren’t on the edge (figuratively and literally) of falling down you weren’t doing it as well as you could. Learning and doing were inseparable.

The world of efficiency pretends that you can separate learning and doing. If you control enough of the variables, you can get away with this strategy for chunks of time. If you stay on the bunny slopes, you can control the variables. But only at the expense of learning. If you avoid the edges, you never get better.

You can choose to stay away from the edges. The problem is that the edges keep moving. Often in your direction, despite your best efforts. Better to accept the world as it is and develop ways to operate with that reality.

Effectiveness is the shorthand I’ve adopted for this spot. More than anything else, it depends on accepting that you can’t separate learning and doing. It’s an accident of history that we’ve been able to pretend otherwise.

Sure, you can find guardrails while your doing is clumsy. But you have to be seeking out the edges where things get scary. The best way to manage the scary is to find others looking for the edges.

Our edges and our comfort zones never align. Collectively we know more and can do more than any one of us can individually.