Do We Learn From Our Mistakes? Or Not?

The NYTimes today reported yesterday on a Harvard Business School study of venture capital-backed entrepreneurs to test whether or not we learn from our mistakes. The results are confounding to many—including me.

Here’s the story. Several thousand VC-backed companies were studied over 17 years. First-timers had an aggregate success rate of 22% (success meaning going public).

The study is about those trying for a second time. Did the 78% who failed the first time learn from the experience, and do better the second time? Or worse? How did the 22% first-time winners fare—did they get lazy and decline? Or did they somehow do better the second time?

No less an expert than Gordon Moore, sainted ex-leader of Intel and the author of “Moore’s law,” said “You’re more valuable because of the experiences you’ve been through under failures.”

I’m with Gordon. But according to this data, we’re both wrong.

Those who succeeded the first time upped their success rate, to 34%. But those who failed the first time stayed mired in the muck, at 23%. So much for the myth of the gritty, plucky lads who pick themselves up and learn from their failures.

Apparently the data are not the problem: “the data are absolutely clear,” says Paul Gompers, one of the study’s authors. Yet it is still far from clear what the data mean.

As is often the case, data are one thing, and explanation another. Of course, the obvious explanation may be true: people just do not learn from adversity. This seems to be the study’s authors’ view—that the learn-from-failure ethos celebrated in Silicon Valley is really just anecdotal tales over-told.

Then again, maybe we actually do learn more from success than from failure. If so, perhaps that’s because of increased confidence resulting from one win.

Or, maybe only the really good people learn at all. And they can learn from experience alone, whether success or failure.

Or, perhaps these conclusions are only true of a certain type of person, characterized by some cross-cutting characteristic, such as risk tolerance. (Did you know height is correlated with IQ? True: short people score lower on the same IQ tests that tall people take. Of course, if you separate young children from the adults, or use age-normalized tests, the correlation goes away).

Or, to channel a recent 30 Rock storyline, maybe the first time winners are just very good-looking people who are actually horrible, but live in a bubble in which others let them pass. Hey, you never know!

Causal deductions are never fully provable—thanks, Dr. Hume. But progress can be made toward explanations.

So, what do you think’s going on?

And I’ll throw one idea into the ring, borrowed from Karl Popper, who developed the falsifiability theory of meaningfulness. A theory which is highly disprovable, but which remains standing, is superior to a hard-to-disprove theory.

Maybe people who fail have a much greater chance to learn. Why it is that they don’t still seems a mystery to me.

5 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *