Learning In The Negative

Learning In The Negative

Learning what doesn’t work helps us focus on learning what to do. It allows us to be successful. It’s a lesson that apply regardless of how much time we’ve spent on the earth.

My youngest, Michael, decided a while ago that she was going to use an app called Procreate to do drawing and graphic work. She’s also of the age where she didn’t have the patience to read the documentation on how to use the app or watch YouTube videos that explain it.

She spent a lot of time using it wrong.

This isn’t a bad solution for someone who’s a quick learner and at her age, she’s a quick learner.

While I was watching her I realized that she was a part of a trend in history that we take for granted. For Michael the cost of doing something wrong was so low there was virtually no risk involved. She wasn’t planting seeds or feeding the animals that her family would depend on for food later in the year. She wasn’t doing delicate factory work in a dangerous environment. While all of those things sound foreign to us today those are very real environments for kids her age to have worked in in the past.

We’ve had more than one generation now where the concept of measure twice cut once is a phrase they haven’t had to live by.

While we’re intuitively aware that the cost of being wrong is at a historical low we are still driven in our society and by our nature to be right. The capitalist system provides a good incentive for us to continue to strive to be correct while still providing us with the cushion of safe to fail or fail forward. And yes, I will give capitalism the credit here. It’s concept of the value of money in relation to time encourages all participants to beat inflation and seek to exceed it’s projected buying power.

Edison was driven by the same forces of capitalism in his day as well.

“I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”
— Thomas A. Edison

This Edison quote exemplifies a sense of maturity about life that I hope to be able to adopt. Instead of seeing events as successes and mistakes Edison disciplined himself to see them as neutral events towards a goal. I’m sure he was human at times and disappointed in his pursuits but discipline doesn’t require perfection. It requires consistent willingness.

The academic industry has developed a culture of moving past what looks like failure. In the TV show Time Team a group of archeologists dig for three days to find out as much as they can about a site. Before they choose where to dig they use geophysics tools that measure magnetic differences in the soil and ground penetrating radar. They give the dig teams the best possible chances to find what will help them learn more about the site. However, throughout the 20 year run of the show there were a lot of empty trenches that had to be abandoned.

When it would happen team members and the audience would feel a wave of disappointment—but the more disciplined crew members would remind the team and the audience that proving a negative is still a result. We discovered there isn’t anything here was just as valid an outcome as we found a Roman villa!

In Goldratt’s book The Choice he talks about seeing all of the steps forward that he takes—steps into the unknown—as prototypes that are move valuable for the learning they offer not the actual product. Goldratt’s experience as a physicist, philosopher, and business engineer taught him the value of this perspective.

I will often go exploring for ideas at work. To help me get through the situation I often think of what I do as walking down a hallway with infinite doors. The cost of finding a closed door can be frustrating at times. The benefit of knowing it’s closed means I don’t have to keep knocking anymore.

I look for other paths.

It doesn’t take a lifetime to learn the value of this perspective. We don’t need to be certified to apply the discipline needed to improve our lives. Literally, we can say that the best thing we can do is act like children. Michael showed/reminded me that the cost of failing forward has never been lower at any other time in the history of our species. If I can learn that from her then there’s hope for all of us.