Learning What Not To Do


There are undeniable advantages in going first. Whether you’re the first kid in class to present his project, or the maker of the first smartphone, pioneers possess the ability to set standards. They face the freedom of zero or flexible expectations. Pioneers can relax a bit, knowing that there’s a greater tolerance for error.

Growing up, I often took advantage of being first. I suppose this is natural for the oldest child, but even in school or in sports, there were many quantifiable advantages to being first that I saw. Emphasis on quantifiable. I had a proclivity toward results -- the more immediate the better. Immediate gains, limited though they might be, were gains nonetheless.

I had the nasty habit of being what Josh Waitzkin refers to in The Art of Learning as an entity theorist. Entity theorists, Waitzkin explains, tend to have the mindset of being innately good or bad at something. They know their strengths and they play to them.

They also tend to lack resilience. They cannot, as Waitzkin says, invest in loss. Entity theorists like me avoid what they don’t perceive themselves to be good at because the pain of defeat shatters them. I usually chose to go first because it increased my odds of looking favorable in the teacher’s eyes and consequently, getting the A that I wanted.

Learning theorists are the opposite of entity theorists. Waitzkin explains that they tend to have the mindset of, “I won because I work hard.” Or, in the face of failure, “If I want to win next time, I need to work harder.” Innate ability is less important to them. Learning theorists believe any skill can be acquired with a long enough timeline.

Looking back on my school days, the learning theorists tended to present toward the back half of middle. They had the benefit of learning from my mistakes and of the others that followed. Yes, they still wanted to win the A grade, but they were motivated by something deeper: mastery. They were more motivated by learning the incremental steps and processes that make excellence, though they might not be aware of it.

As I’ve aged, I’ve steadily transformed myself from an entity theorist to a learning theorist. There has been nothing better for this than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The mindset is serving me particularly well in my work. A prime example showed up this morning on the digital front page of the New York Times.

Data has never been more valuable. It’s awfully tempting to develop some busch league weather app in order to siphon location data to the highest bidder. The easier path is a temptation that Google appears to be wrestling with daily basis. I’m old enough to remember the days of Google’s internal “Don’t be evil” slogan. Well, it’s officially gone from the company’s code of conduct. I suppose caving to a historically oppressive government’s censorship needs precludes a company from being evil.

Here’s where being a learning theorist pays off: We have ample time to study the mistakes of others, learning what not to do. Whatever advantage is lost in not being first can be gained by learning what not to do. The examples abound, we just need to tune in and not be so hyper focused on immediate results.