Learning from disparity, aka “failure”

February 2, 2010

I’ve long argued that failure is the only way a person can learn. This has been a very reasonating bit of wisdom for me, despite the fact people have often argued against it with rather sound logic. “Yes, you can learn from failure, but you can also learn from success!” Only after reading Jason Fried’s blog post from nearly one year ago to the day titled, Learning from failure is overrated have I realized exactly what’s wrong. We’re talking about different kinds of failure.

Learning happens when you correct the mismatch of an expected outcome from the actual outcome. This is where the idea of learning from failure actually comes from. Failure represents a mistake in judgment, a disparity between expectation and reality. Therefore, if your expectation is validated by success and there is no disparity, then you didn’t actually learn anything — you already knew.

However, validation of an expected but unsure success is obviously learning because it corrects the expectation of doubt you had. Furthermore, analysis of an unexpected success can result in learning from correcting the assumptions that led to expecting failure. A successful outcome, but a failure to expect it.

This is where the confusion comes in. Unfortunately it’s an issue of semantics. The meaning of the word failure in the context of “learning from failure” is this failure to know the outcome. In this way, it’s true: you can only learn from failure. However, it is only this specific instance of expectation-failure this applies to so absolutely.

Separately although related (which I think adds to the confusion), despite outcome-failures not necessarily teaching you what will work, they tend to be the strongest lessons experienced. I mostly attribute this to the greater level of disparity and correction made to your mental model that comes from expecting a failing outcome to succeed.

In any case, you learn from experience. There is no way to acquire knowledge without experience. In fact, that’s an entirely different argument. You can only acquire knowledge through experience. Not reading, not getting advice. But I’ll save that one for later.

3 Responses to “Learning from disparity, aka “failure””

  1. I think you are right: having success testing an hipothys or any kind of theory only confirms what you know (or at least, what you think you know), it only confirms.

    But when you have a failure, in the context we are talking about, you learn that your knowledge does not model the world as you think and gives a hint of what could be the next path to follow (or in the case that the situation is a binary, like is one answer or the other, then you are shown the correct one).

    Also, in the point of experience, I totally agree with it, just one thing: gaining experience is like growing, it hurts, but at the end, you end up being a better person…

  2. Just to fix a typo: I meant *hypothesis* =)

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