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Positive or Negative Reinforcement?

Have you ever heard the little acronym for fail: First Attempt In Learning?  Bill Gates is credited for addressing failure this way:  "It's fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure." We might think he was merely speaking about success when we first examine this quote, but he really is saying how success is realized - by a few or more attempts at learning what success will actually look like! If success if based upon the lessons we learn from our failures, does that change how we might just come to view our failures in the future?

The one who hates good counsel will reap failure and ruin, but the one who reveres God’s instruction will be rewarded. (Proverbs 13:13 VOICE)

Thomas Edison was asked about his inventions and all the things scattered around his workshop which didn't work.  In addressing that issue, he simply stated he had not really failed with all those inventions, but rather found a whole lot of ways that didn't work.  Failure isn't always a bad thing - it shows that we tried something and it didn't work.  When we keep doing the same thing over and over again, thinking maybe we will get a different result from exactly the same actions, that is when failure becomes a "bad thing" because we didn't learn from what didn't work!

J.K. Rowling is probably best known for the Harry Potter series, and although I have not read her work, I came across something she said which did stick with me:  "It is impossible to fail without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default." (found on  If we never start anything, we fail by default - pretty telling of how we sometimes see things in life and then avoid them because they just look too overwhelming or difficult for us to ever achieve.  

Spoiler Alert:  In our walk with Jesus, we will fall or "fail" a whole lot.  If we view the fall / failure as a stumble from which we can recover, we are more likely to get back up and try again.  If we consider it impossible to ever recover from, we will wallow in our self-pity and never grow.  Plain and simple, walking involves the occasional stumble, and even the periodic falling!  We just cannot avoid all the points where we might fail in life - life is riddled with them!

Nothing is more true than when it comes to choosing the right counsel in life - we may think we have tuned into the wisest choice, only to find we didn't reap what we hoped to in the end.  The counsel we listen to in life may come from a trusted adviser, such as a close friend or spiritual leader.  It may come from something we read, studying it until we think we have it "down" and can put it into practice in our lives. It may also come from that voice inside our own heads which confuses us at times because of how loudly it calls out for us to do things our own way!

Wisdom is not the absence of failure - it is the ability to take the steps we think are the best counsel, and if we stumble along the way, to get back up to try it again with a little different plan!  As I said earlier, to try the thing we were attempting using exactly the same effort, wisdom, etc., over and over again will likely get us the same results.  If the first results were less than desirable, what makes us think the repeated results will be more so?  We need a change of attack when it comes to taking future action - getting new counsel, or listening to a better counselor is probably not the only solution.  We need listening hearts, teachable minds, and willing spirits if we are ever to grow in Christ!

B.F. Skinner was a well-known psychologist we studied when I went through nursing school.  One of the things which stuck with me from his work was this belief of all human action being dependent upon the results or consequences of past actions.  In other words, we do what we do based upon the results of what we did in the past.  If those results produced things we enjoyed, we repeat them.  If they produced pain or sorrow, we are less likely to return to those actions in the future - such as when we burn ourselves on a hot stove.  He taught the concept of humans learning from previous actions.

To his credit, he realized it was possible to learn from our past actions - through a process he referred to as "reinforcement".  Now, mind you, we don't always learn that quickly, but it is possible to learn - according to Skinner, through positive or negative reinforcement!  If all of life were that simple, huh?  Some of us get a whole lot of negative results from our actions and we still return to them.  If wasn't something within the action which caused us to not learn from the negative consequences - it was our own heart, mind, or will!  If we were to submit these to God even before we set out to take any action, I wonder if we might just get a little different results?  Just askin!


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