How often we say, "I'll never do that again" or "I'm not going to make that mistake anymore." But we repeat the mistakes we make in school, in marriage, in work, and in life. Through it all, we continue to believe that we learn from our failures.
I think we learn most from our own successes, not our failures. Of course, in life as in baseball, we strike out a lot, but that doesn't mean that we learn from our failures, anymore than a batter who strikes out learns from the miss.
Nevertheless, it's important that we fail - and fail often. If we don't, we're probably not testing our limits or taking necessary risks to improve. Tennis players who never double-fault and skiers who never fall aren't playing to their capacities. They probably aren't very good, either.
Because we often fail, some of us become obsessed with the success of others. We spend a lot of money on books, tapes, lectures, and training programs produced by happiness hucksters like Tony Robbins and others, whose major success is in selling themselves as successes.
The results may be negligible, but that doesn't stop us from looking for simple, easy, quick success formulas. Exploring the mountain of self-help books does little for us. It's like reading a manual for a car we don't own.
Albert Camus' 1952 essay, "Return to Tipansa," sums up the self-help oeuvre in five quick words: "Isolated beauty ends up simpering."
But when we learn to do something exceptionally well - through persistent effort - we may feel we've achieved world domination. Anyone who can throw a good fastball, or who knows physics like her own backyard, or who can pick up a .22 and pick off a pinecone at a hundred yards, knows this.
Learning from success happens when we're "on our game," when things are working for us, and when we're stimulated by our achievements. While a series of failures may demoralize us, a string of successes gives us the strength and determination to continue.
While many of us may think we're motivated by hearing about others' successes, believe it or not, there is little that is more encouraging or energizing than learning about or witnessing others' failures - especially experts who fail. Who can suppress their glee when discovering the mistakes of "smart people" who screw up? We can learn something from their failures.
We can also relate better to people who fail and we can learn more in the process. Eminent psychologist Carl Rogers used to say that he didn't really know how to talk to people unless they were talking to him about a problem they had. To some extent, that's true for all of us. Very few of us are capable of connecting to others' success with the same sensitivity and wholeheartedness that we extend to their failures.
Few of us have the insight or the honesty of author Gore Vidal, who remarked, "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."
Responding to failure seems to bring out the good in us. It's not that we want others to suffer; it's that we know better how to empathize with someone who is suffering than we do with a person celebrating success. Even though we can applaud and wish successful acquaintances the best, it seems easier to share their experience of failure.
Perhaps that's why gossip is such a unifying force. Most of us probably publicly condemn gossip. Yet it's probably the single most community-building, social-bonding experience most of us have. Gossip seldom revolves around descriptions of others' successes, however, because sharing stories of others' troubles is what brings us together.
So our own failures may not teach us as much as others' failures.
The idea that we can learn from our own failures is built on the notion that we learn from our own experience - that experience is the best teacher.
In one sense, that is obviously true, because experience is really all we have. But to learn from experience means we have to process it. We need to analyze it. And for one reason or another, most of us don't want to do that.
We don't want to take the time and energy, we don't want to face the negative aspects of it, and we don't wish to look deeply into our own failures. Experience could be the best teacher, but it seldom is.
Let's look deeply into our own successes - and other peoples' failures. Those may be our best "teachers."