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.

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.

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.

McGee’s Musings turns 22

This time last year, we were just getting settled in our apartment in Nazaré, Portugal. In ten days we head to Durham, NC for the next chapter in our adventure.

McGee’s Musings continues to be one thread of continuity. I’ve always viewed it as an experiment of sorts. Back then, having a blog was what the cool kids were doing and it fit with my teaching work. Then it became a habit. Like most of my habits, I practice it in fits and starts.

A deeper habit that grew out of this experiment was of “narrating my work,” which I picked up from watching Dave Winer (Scripting News). I now do that primarily with Obsidian. That morphs what ends up here. Most of what I write these days starts out in notes to myself. Getting from something that works well enough for my own purposes to something coherent enough to share with the world is a different problem than targeting a public audience from the outset.

So, I continue to learn. And, I will continue to share.

Let Stories Flow

Word reached me that Larry Prusak passed away ten days ago.

We coauthored our first book (Managing Information Strategically - Google Books) together. At the time (this was thirty years ago), we were working at the Center for Information Technology and Strategy, which was a think tank in Boston sponsored by Ernst & Young. I got listed at the first author courtesy of the alphabet. As the junior member of the effort, I also took on project management responsibilities for the effort.

Larry’s gifts as a storyteller were clear even then. But they weren’t showing up on the page. His initial drafts tried to capture everything he knew and everything he had previously read. For those of you who knew Larry, you will know that this was approximately everything that had ever been written on the subject.

We needed a different approach.

What we did was to limit Larry to a short outline of bullet points, put him in a conference room with an audience and a tape recorder, and let him tell stories.

I don’t know that he actually needed the outline, but it made me feel more comfortable. The resulting transcripts gave us what we needed with a bit of editing and rearranging.

Larry taught me a lot. I will miss him. But, I’ll always have the stories.

Making Art Happen

In high school I started to do some work in theater. It was a way to meet girls. At an all boys school, there wasn’t any way to do that in the halls between classes. There were, however, joint productions with a sister school. I was much too shy to attempt any performing roles but there’s always a need for people willing to work backstage.

I got to Princeton in the early days of coeducation there. Perhaps three quarters of the students then were guys. During Freshman Week I was enticed into a performance of the Princeton Triangle Club by a cute blonde passing out flyers outside McCarter Theater. Knowing one end of a hammer from another made me more than qualified to join the tech crew.

Four years later, I had done pretty much any backstage job that went into putting on a live performance. From stagehand to electrician to production stage manager I learned what went into making art happen on stage. And what supported that art offstage.

There’s very little about staging a play that’s efficient. I’ve stood behind a set piece on stage to keep it from falling during a performance. Don’t be seen and fix it later. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

“The show must go on” is a real thing. Internalizing that sets you up to keep your wits about you in the midst of chaos. Turns out that’s a pretty important set of life lessons and skills.

Racing ahead to what?

I went to an exceptionally good high school. That was courtesy of a nun in my parochial school who recognized I wasn’t being sufficiently challenged in the school I was in. That school got me into Princeton University. Moreover, it got me credit for enough college level work that I was on track to graduate in three years. I opted to major in Statistics on the theory that I could use that to pursue a graduate degree in any number of fields.

This seemed like an excellent plan for a kid from the Midwest on a mix of scholarships, my parents digging deeper than I ever appreciated, and work study jobs (including one as a dorm janitor). Going into my second year, I found better jobs as an electrician and stage carpenter at the university’s McCarter Theater. I also made time to get involved in student theater, so I wasn’t just grinding away at classes. Sleep was occasionally hard to come by but that was more about enjoying the experience than about working.

Midway through my second year I started to ask what was next. Not whatever argument I had made to get permission for my three year timetable but what was I actually thinking would happen when I did graduate. In my quest to move through the process as efficiently as possible, I had given no real thought to what that efficiency would buy me. I was approaching a finish line to one race with no real sense for what the next race was going to entail.

Nor did I have any words or concepts to bring to bear on these questions. My father had gone to college on the GI bill after serving in the Navy during WWII. He was the only one of his siblings to get a college degree. I was the first in my generation to think of college as a path to follow. My cousins were baffled; why would anyone spend the time and money for college when there were good union jobs to be had?

There was a huge amount of tacit knowledge I lacked. I was so ignorant I wasn’t even aware that I was ignorant.

Fortunately, I did something sensible despite my ignorance. I hit the pause button. I dropped back to a four year timetable. Slowing down was a necessary step. It bought me time to start figuring out the questions I needed to be asking.