Tom Friedman in his July 29 column in The New York Times, titled “59 Is The New 30”, writes about 59 year old pro-golfer Tom Watson almost winning the British open:

This wonderful but cruel game never stops testing or teaching you. “The only comment I can make,” Watson told me after, “is one that the immortal Bobby Jones related: ‘One learns from defeat, not from victory.’ I may never have the chance again to beat the kids, but I took one thing from the last hole: hitting both the tee shot and the approach shots exactly the way I meant to wasn’t good enough. ... I had to finish.”

I have great respect for Tom Friedman and Tom Watson, but this often repeated saying that we learn more from failure than from success, has always bothered me. It’s just not true. Even Tom Watson, if he really thought about it, would probably agree with me. He’s known for decades, that he “had to finish.” Not making the shots he intended to make didn’t teach him anything. I’m a 40 handicap golfer. When I do something good on the course, I try to repeat it. When, as is more often the case, I lose my ball in the rough or five-putt the green, I don’t have a clue why. I don’t learn much from making errors, but I learn a lot from my successes.

When I evaluate the impact of training programs, as well as any kind of learning intervention, I look for examples of success, not to the exclusion of failure to apply learning, but my emphasis is on results that made a positive difference for the organization. Why? Because people learn more from those examples than from failure. I attribute this to three factors: 1) we can extract desirable and repeatable behaviors from successes whereas failures rarely tell us what will work; 2) learners are more willing to be open and honest about their successes; it’s less personally threatening than talking about failure; and 3) talking about success is rewarding whereas talking about failure is punishing - positive reinforcement works better than punishment.

And now there is biological research to support this notion of learning. MIT brain researchers found that monkeys learn more from their successes than their failures due to cell activity. Of course, we don’t know if this mechanism plays out in the same way in humans but it is fascinating to hear about evidence at the neural level.

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