How to learn through failure

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

George Bernard Shaw

I recently read this blog post by Jim Nielsen where I learned how to notice if I’m actually learning or not.

Like everyone else I’ve read ad nauseam about how important failing is to the learning progress. I’ve become convinced that this is true, but I find myself unable to explain how does that work?

I can’t just attempt to fail, fail repeatedly, and magically improve?

So when I read Jim Nielsens piece Learning and Being Wrong I was ecstatic to find a description for what failure and learning feels like in practice.

The post is based on notes from Adam Grant’s book Think Again, which I haven’t read (yet).

In a series of quotes and notes Jim describes what it feels like to learn.

“If you don’t look back at yourself and think, ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year.”

All that time we spend regretting past choices and missed chances are actually a proof that we’re making progress. How wonderful! And it doesn’t stop there.

He’s also found this amazing quote that describes what learning looks like in practice.

“Being actively open minded means “searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right” because “the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.””

This quote is almost a step by step instruction on how to learn. Whenever I learn something new, I should actively look for ways to be wrong. This seems counter intuitive. But doing it this way I will much quicker understand if I am mistaken, or end up not being able to find anything wrong, and proceed knowing it’s true enough.

This process lets me trust what I know a lot more, as well as gives the right kind of attitude about knowledge: it’s never absolute truth.

A thought that struck me when I got this far was: Would that process work for new knowledge as well? Things where there is no one to ask, or no existing reference material? 

Let’s say I do some test or look at something and formulate some naive idea about how it works. I write that down and then start looking for ways I might be wrong. I will probably keep discovering edge cases and ways my theory is incorrect. But iterating on that process, I could end up discovering completely new knowledge.

So here’s a three step process for learning anything through failure, based on the above insights:

  1. Form a hypothesis based on your observations. Ex: React is the most popular framework for new digital businesses.
  2. Actively look for ways to be wrong. Ex: Ask around for startups looking to hire for alternative tech stacks. Check google trends and news trends for competing frameworks.
  3. Either reform your hypothesis based on new information. Ex: React is the most popular framework in new VC backed digital businesses.
    Or realise that you can’t invalidate it, and act as if it’s true.

I have no idea if this is true or not. But I’m mightily excited to try and disprove it!

I’ll end this post with another brilliant insight from this post, what knowledge feels like:

“being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”

Let me know if I’m wrong, please. And enjoy being wrong!