Do we learn best from our mistakes?

No, we do not just learn from our mistakes!

Do we learn best from our mistakes?

Many unscientific pseudo-psychological posts from self-proclaimed coaches on social media claim that we learn best from mistakes, from our own mistakes, even. That is just not true. The attempt to move from finger pointing high-blame practice to fail-fast agile ways is sensible and lovable of course, but as always there is no simple answer to complex questions.

Why did this even come up? I have been hearing cheap ways of saying for a long time, now (“learning by burning“? Seriously?), but lately everybody seems to explain their lives with them.

Nature versus Nurture

or, it sounds better in German: Kultur gegen Natur. Culture wins. Twice. We mainly learn from patterns inferred and shown by parents, stories told by main peers and education.

The reason why humans overtook the apes in evolution is because we outsourced instincts into wisdom, wisdom that is transferred through culture, not through genes and not by making our own mistakes. That way there is space for even more culture in our heads without making the gestation period non-survivable.

Never mind the Bambi lie

That is the reason why a baby deer does not eat poisonous plants without being taught anything and human kids need to train for decades before becoming capable of surviving. Apparently there is no free lunch.

Do we really learn from mistakes?

Of course not, at least not in general. We tend to suppress negative experience in order not to be traumatized and non-functional on a long-term. And history repeats itself, we repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

A few counter examples

If we really learn from our mistakes,

  • Why do we go to work while being ill and cough all through the way there in public transport, not even months after lock-down restrictions?
  • Why do we still believe evolution needs growth?
  • Why do we believe populist harmful short-term solutions, although they never have worked?

We do learn from success

The statement that we only learn from mistakes can only be believed by people who never had success. Poor them. The same does not count for the people who spread these claims. They clearly make a profit by selling their theories to unsuccessful people. What a tragic development – that actually proves the saying wrong. Those people have learned that their success can be repeated by making weak people feel miserable in a variety of new ways by commodifying ineffective solutions.

Fail fast? Sure!

Failing fast is about making experiments in order to recognize mistakes in made assumptions as soon as possible. It is not about glorifying failure and seeking not to be successful. Trying to get away from Waterfall is important. Overdoing it doesn’t help. Simplification doesn’t help. Because, as always, there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

Learn from mistakes


This is another example of everybody wanting a slice of the hype topics‘ cake without having a clue about the regarding topics. Pseudo-science on the large. If we really were only learning from mistakes, we would be degenerating already because of negative selection. Oh wait. We probably are. Happy exponential activism, everyone (-:

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Danilo Biella, Agile & Quality Professional

Agile makes no compromise on quality.