“Oh no, not another ‘learning experience’”

I saw the bumper sticker once while driving in Boston some 15 years ago that said:

“Oh no, not another ‘learning experience.’”

I still smile at the sentiment. We know we should learn from failure but euphemisms such as having a “learning experience” seem tone deaf when faced with the many disappointments and setbacks we face. Sure, at some point we’ll make sense of the disappointment, but immediately glorifying failure as a “learning experience” doesn’t seem to respect the disappointment itself.

I never met the owner of the car with the bumper sticker, but you have to wonder what sentiment and life experience led them to joyfully paste that phrase on the back of his or her car. There is a forlorn stance with the opening “oh no,” and a humorous refusal of facing yet again another “learning experience.”

But the phrase indicates what we’ve all experienced, that many of the most critical things we have learned in life have come from failure. In fact, when I ask students to write a reflective paper on what they have learned from failure, it can be tough to even identify “pure” failures in our lives. What was once a failure becomes transformed as we reinterpret the past and take alternative actions that lead to redemptive paths. We “failed” by getting rejected by one school, but were accepted at another and flourished.

Failure is a momentary label, and its impact can be transformed by what is learned—both individually and in the organizations in which we work. So in the face of disappointments, mistakes, errors, and failures, see the developmental potential in them, and while you still might bemoan another “learning experience,” make it exactly that.

Ryan Smerek is an assistant professor and assistant director of the MS in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. He is the author of Organizational Learning and Performance: The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture.

Photo Source: Sven Scheuermeier/Unsplash

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