Jonah Lehrer: Failure is How We Learn

Jonah Lehrer is an American author and journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities. He has published three books. Simon Ings has written, "Lehrer fancies himself – and not without reason – as a sort of one-man third culture, healing the rift between sciences and humanities by communicating and contrasting their values in a way that renders them comprehensible to partisans of either camp."

Jonah is a contributing Editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, and Imagine: How Creativity Works. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker  and WNYC's radio program RadioLab, and writes the Head Case column for the Wall Street Journal. 

  • Transcript


Jonah Lehrer: Well, that's how people learn, right?  You learn through failure.  One of my favorite Bob Dylan lines is “there's no success like failure,” and that captures the learning process.  There's this great Niels Bohr quote I’m kind of obsessed with, which is that “an expert is simply someone who has made all the mistakes there are to make in a narrow field.”  And from the perspective of your brain, that's very true, that you have to make mistakes, you have to make prediction errors, you have to screw up and that's how you get better.  So I think we have to internalize that at an individual level and just realize that this is how we make ourselves better.

So if you look at successful kinds of practice, they’re called deliberate practice and it often involves drilling, going over your mistakes, which is exhausting and painful.  It’s the least fun way to practice, but it’s also by far the most effective.  So being able to admit mistakes and learn from mistakes is a crucial part of success in every domain, whether it’s a creative domain or just building up a talent.  You know, there is no shortcut around that.  I think it’s also true at the organizational level.  

I got to spend some time at Pixar while writing
Imagine.  And I was talking to Lee Unkrich, who’s the director of Toy Story 3, and I was asking him what's the secret sauce of Pixar, what has allowed this animation studio to, in a sense, go 12 for 12, to produce 12 movies and have every one be a box office success.  And he gave this very eloquent answer about how most companies assume the way to succeed is to avoid failure at all costs.  But if you’re trying to make something new, you have to realize that failing is going to be part of the process and you're going to make mistakes.  You’re going to go down cul-de-sacs, go down blind alleys.  You are gonna to screw up.  That’s why, as he described the process at Pixar, it was all about screwing up as quickly as possible.  It was failing fast and then fixing those failures.