I’ve never been one to learn from my mistakes. Throughout my life, I keep going back to the scene of the crime. If it was bad the first time, I can make it even worse the second, third and 333rd time. Just like Groundhog Day.
Years later, I still remember my mother berating me when I was a teenager and didn’t study for a Latin test because I thought I knew all the answers … or that they might come to me by divine inspiration. They didn’t. I flunked.
“WHEN will you learn???” she growled.
I heard that a lot, and it’s a phrase I’ve repeated just as often to my four daughters – and wife. “When will you learn?”
I partied too much, I spent too much, I hung out with the wrong crowd, I got in trouble, I dated the wrong girls, I didn’t look when I backed out of the driveway, I drank too much Ballantine Ale, I ate too many chili dogs, not to mention pepperoni pizza, and paid the price the next day. Should I continue?
I certainly can identify with St. Paul who said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Perhaps it’s part of the human condition that we can’t learn from our mistakes. A recent study by Vanderbilt University in the Journal of Consumer Psychology concluded that people who look to their past usually repeat the same mistakes, regardless of how much they try to alter their behavior.
Vanderbilt professor of marketing Kelly Haws said, “Be very careful when you ask anybody to dig up the past. That can be a very ineffective way to change future behavior for the better.” She concluded that recalling past mistakes doesn’t help you develop self-control and that it’s “an unreliable tool for improvement.” Instead, she says, you should set future goals to effect positive behavioral change.
Of course, that theory flies in the face of a lot of traditional thinking from philosophers like George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” to Edmund Burke and probably even the Chicago Cubs.
That’s not to say there aren’t hordes of people who SHOULD learn from their mistakes. There’s a long list, from Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus to Pete Rose and A-Rod.
I often thought that if I couldn’t learn from my own mistakes, maybe I could learn from other people’s mistakes, but that approach didn’t work either. I went to the hospital to visit my uncle who was suffering from emphysema and carrying around an oxygen tank after years of smoking Camels. The experience didn’t stop me. Since I smoked Tareytons, I reasoned things wouldn’t get as bad. (Fortunately, I stopped.)
This principle also applies in marriage. Even though I know exactly what not to say to get my wife riled and ignite a domestic dispute, I go down the same path all the time. However, I’ve mellowed a bit and lately I only go down that path once a month instead of once a day.
An unproductive parenting technique is to tell your kids how to live their lives — at least when they’re not telling you how to live yours. If you can’t learn from your own mistakes, how do you expect your children to learn from them?
It was Plato who believed that when people are shown The Good, they will embrace it and change, but I see no evidence of that in ancient Greece, modern America or my own home. Turn on the TV and ask yourself, “Do we learn from our mistakes?” Did the great financial collapse of 2008 change anything? What about the constant violence in television, film and video games, and its effect on our culture?
Nevertheless, I want to look on the positive side. Consider Snooki. You remember her. She was one of the stars on that really creepy reality TV show “The Jersey Show,” who was always boozed up, hooking up and just generally messed up. Now, she’s the mother of two kids, 50 pounds lighter and goes by her given name, Nicole. She has become what they call a “lifestyle guru” and is full of advice for America. Pretty soon she’ll be a candidate for sainthood or the Senate.
So there may be hope for the rest of us.
Contact Joe Pisani at firstname.lastname@example.org.