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We Retain It and Enjoy It…. When We’re Right

When We Enjoy It …and When We’re Right

I remember way back in the day – my first management consulting position. My boss was a good guy. He meant well. Nobody trained him to be a leader, so his motives were likely based on what he genuinely thought would work. I do believe he meant well (after all, he knew our success pointed right back to him). He proudly puffed out his chest as he plopped a fairly complex project on our desks to ‘analyze’.

His four new management consultants (it was me, along with three other spring chickens) looked up to him with curious expressions. We yearned for the guidance we needed (and expected) to achieve the level of experience our doting leader portrayed.

Yet he believed we would learn best ‘through our mistakes’.

Newly graduated and newly certified, we all were anxious to learn how to appropriately and correctly calculate (back in the day we did it manually, so I think it’s fair to say it was labor intensive) these analytical frameworks and models. Thereby determining the most appropriate methodologies to apply to any given scenario presented to us.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I tend to find humor in things. Even the most remedial or sometimes inappropriate things. I thought it was so funny when all four of us totally bombed this pseudo conglomerate ‘client’.

It wasn’t funny though. It was actually really frustrating to work through four pages of binder paper (both sides, to boot) of mathematical calculations, formulas, and worksheets. It was time-consuming, too. But it tickled my funny bone to the core when all four of us totally missed the boat.

But it came as no surprise. We were all guessing. Yes, we all happened to be recent undergrads and we had shiny certifications that deemed us worthy of this particular title. Aside from some interning, none of us had the industry experience yet.

He held true to his belief that we will learn best by figuring it out on our own.

It’s so unfortunate that 25 years later, many leaders still believe this to be an effective way to learn the ropes.

Granted, I’d be willing to bet most of us want to learn from our mistakes. What’s so interesting though, is that for many people it’s almost instinctual to ignore ‘it’… or try to hope the mistake will just vanish into thin air.

It’s Primal

Did you know that it takes less than one second for our brains to register the mistake and do one of two things: 1) either ignore it or 2) try to learn from it. The good news – the great news is that those of us who provide a concerted effort (I mean a genuinely intense effort) are going to learn significantly more than those who don’t.

I know… that kind of seems like common sense.

But the point here is that our brain responds to mistakes before the information is actually consciously registered or processed (Bryner, 2007). Our subconscious reverts to the comforts of familiarity and automatic habits.

An even better approach here is to recognize that we tend to learn and retain information far more effectively when we enjoy the process. More so, we learn far more from our successes than we do our mistakes (contrary to popular belief).

Creating a culture of successful learning positions our staff to relax and enjoy the process. You know that wonderful feeling of success? It’s caused by a swell or a gush of dopamine. Those neurotransmitters in our brains are hard-wired to work relentlessly to repeat what feels good (or what gets a good response from others!) even when we don’t realize it. What happens is all that activity in our brains want to do it again! It feels good to succeed… so, let’s repeat whatever we did to get there.

So, when it comes to complex formulas, it might not be a bad idea to present the learning process whereas your new hires will succeed. Their brains are hard-wired to want to repeat the process when they did a good job at coming to the conclusion expected of them. It’s pretty cool, when you think about it – the cognitive process actually craves additional or allocational attentional resources.

So what happens? We naturally adjust our behavior dependent upon what we believe the outcome will be. Repeat that recent success? Heck yeah! What’s more – our brain keeps track of all this stuff. It keeps a fine tuned track of these behaviors that led to success, so it’s even easier next time 🙂

Fast Forward

I loved my work. I still do. But the point here is that I loved my work back then – 25 years ago when my boss provided some backward way of training. Imagine if he would have capitalized on the idea that all four of us were excited about our new roles and responsibilities? Calculating the relationship between mental adeptness and performance is really… not too difficult. Once our minds connect new information with what we already know, we will retain it long-term.

Its potency is prime for high quality cognitive efficiency.

Callousness isn’t worth the risk of losing good people. Especially not those who genuinely want to learn… preferably through other’s mistakes, rather than their own. There is no reason any of us should not be able to learn through other people’s mistakes, when training is properly executed.

It’s not worth loosing those of us who tend to be life-long learners.

I wish I could have told that old boss of mine that training a handful of excited new hires by having them guess is running the risk of what happens to our brain after experiencing failure: those same controls that navigate retention of success haven’t forgot what it feels like to fail – leaving people not caring too much about things. That’s because there is little, if any, changes in the brain when we fail.

But jump on the occasion to learn when you make a mistake. Start the process to reloop the neurotransmitters in your brain to adjust to a preferred and successful method.


Reference: Bryner, J. (2017). Study reveals why we learn from mistakes. Live Science. Retrieved from: