Learn from Success

“Learn from your mistakes.” How many times have you heard this? It’s good advice, as far as it goes. The lessons of our failures are valuable — burn your finger once and you learn to steer clear of the hot stove. But how often have you conducted an autopsy of a success? What might you learn if you did?

Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s reader-friendly book “Switch — How to Change Things When Change is Hard” invites us to devote more attention to our successes — both for what we can learn about how to solve a problem and to help avoid overwhelm and motivate change. Unfortunately, we often ignore success in favor of dwelling on failures. We seem to be wired for it. In study after study, psychologists have found that there is a “positive-negative asymmetry” whereby “bad is stronger than good.” We pay more attention to bad news; people’s negative characteristics make a stronger impression on us than their positive qualities. It turns out that we even have nearly twice as many words for negative emotions as for positive emotions. This emphasis on negativity can lead to feeling overwhelmed and make it hard to believe that change is possible. And our tendency to focus on big problems (and look for correspondingly big solutions) may blind us to the small solutions that can bring about major change.

The Heath brothers describe one inspiring example of the impact of analyzing success in a malnutrition project of Save the Children in Vietnam. The project leader was given few resources and very little time. Rather than focus on the huge and intractable root causes of malnutrition (poverty, poor sanitation, etc.), he instead found the “bright spots” — the least malnourished children — and studied what their mothers were doing differently from the others. By identifying several specific things these mothers were doing (adding sweet potato greens to their rice, giving more frequent smaller meals) and teaching other mothers to do the same, Save the Children significantly reduced child malnutrition in Vietnam in six months. Instead of spending resources analyzing the problem, resources were invested in identifying existing solutions.

Focusing on the bright spots is not a denial of the negative. Nor is it a mindless exhortation to “stay positive!” It is much more pragmatic. As the Heaths note, often much of what is to be learned from analyzing an obstacle to change — poverty, for example — is TBU: “True but Useless.” Save the Children could not solve poverty, but they could help mothers use their existing resources to improve their children’s nutrition.

Here are some examples that are closer to home:

  • If eight out of ten salespeople’s numbers are down, find out what the other two are doing. Is it replicable?
  • If you are having trouble sticking to your diet, analyze the times when you do eat well. What circumstances support your success?
  • If your kid keeps getting into trouble at school, instead of asking why he or she is misbehaving, ask what’s happening on the good days.

This is just one part of the Heath brother’s approach to change. More to come.