Until a decade ago, there was one way to perform a heart bypass surgery: by stopping your heart.
The surgery, called Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting, is a heart attack prevention method that basically calls for a doctor to install a new tube for blood to flow to the heart because the old tube is clogged from too many cheeseburgers.
Because the heart needed to be stopped to install the new tube, the surgery often led to complications.
There was good news.
At the turn of the millennium, doctors figured out a new way to do the surgery without stopping the heart.
This would help a whole lot of people live complication-free lives and not die from heart attacks — if doctors could learn to do it.
But the tricky new CABG surgery took practice.
A group of business researchers started following heart surgeons around the U.S. as they practiced the technique in order to answer a pressing question: How do people learn from their mistakes?
What doesn’t kill you…
Since 1980, the use of the term “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” in popular literature has shot up 500%, according to Google Ngram data. It turns out, however, that in heart surgery this popular phrase doesn’t hold at all. When surgeons screwed up the new CABG surgery, patients suffered terrible side effects, including brain damage from lack of blood flow.
Of course, heart surgery is always risky, but the business researchers found another surprise: Doctors who made mistakes on the new CABG surgery didn’t get stronger either. They got worse at it.
This “what doesn’t kill you” cliche, sung by Pink and invoked by best friends after every breakup in Western history, originally comes from Friedrich Nietzsche in 1888 — shortly before he went completely insane.
Such irony should not be lost on us. Science indicates that some people indeed get stronger after hardship (in biology, we call it muscle development; in psychology, it’s called Post-Traumatic Growth). But psychological trauma often leads to PTSD and personality disorders, and physical trauma can leave us permanently crippled. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger if it puts you in a lifelong coma.
When it comes to learning from our mistakes, it turns out that there’s a dichotomy between people who get psychologically stronger through trial and error and those who don’t. And it doesn’t have to do with the severity of the mistake.
Convicts Who Learn From Their Crimes
A 2014 study of felony convicts shows us what makes the crucial difference. Researchers interviewed 500 prisoners about how felt about their crimes, and then kept tabs on them after release to see whether they ended up re-committing similar crimes. The researchers catalogued the prisoners in two categories: those who felt guilt and those who felt shame. Guilt means that you feel badly for your actions. Shame means that you feel badly about who you are.
Though guilt and shame sound like similar emotions, they proved highly predictive of the ex-cons’ future behavior. Prisoners who felt guilty for what they’d done tended to do better post-parole; they focused on the actions they could do differently since it was their own actions that got them locked up in the first place.
Prisoners who felt shame tended to blame their circumstances in order to preserve their self-esteem — both regarding their crimes and in their general lives — and so they didn’t actually learn from the mistakes and continued on to lives of crime later. Many in the “shame” category ended up back in the slammer.
This, it turns out, is the same thing that the heart surgery study showed, too. Because heart surgery has such high stakes (it’s life or death, after all), doctors who made mistakes often felt shame when they screwed up. In order to sleep at night, they needed to find a way to feel less personally bad when they didn’t succeed at a surgery. So they externalized the reason for failure. The patient was old, or unstable. It was hard to see. It is a complicated surgery. Anything but, “I made mistakes.”
On the other hand, doctors who witnessed other doctors fail at surgery ended up getting better at it themselves. It turned that this was because these doctors felt no personal shame, and could therefore process the reasons for the failure in terms of actions they could take, not external circumstances.
Just like the prisoners who rehabilitated themselves, these doctors found actions they could take. The others — prisoners and surgeons alike — didn’t learn from their mistakes because they were too busy blaming external factors in order to live with themselves.
Depersonalize and observe
For us, the takeaway is twofold. First, if we want to learn from our mistakes, we need to learn to depersonalize them, to look at our actions, whether or not circumstances out of our control may have contributed to the problem. The only thing we can change is what we do. And guilt, for all its faults, can be helpful for this, so long as we don’t let it turn into personal shame.
The second is that learning from others’ mistakes is a lot more effective than trying to learn from our own. Our human tendency to make things personal fogs our ability to pinpoint actions that could make us better. As dark as it sounds, someone else’s mistakes can make us stronger, whether or not it kills them.