Negative learning

December 29th, 2006

I came across an interesting concept the other day. It was called “negative learning.”

What is negative learning?

An excellent example, of negative learning is President Clinton.

Negative learning comes from executing a negative action that produces positive results.

President Clinton, formerly Governor Clinton, formerly Attorney General Clinton, formerly private citizen Clinton, tells a lie and produces a positive effect — a positive effect caused by a negative cause.

A lesson well learned: lie a little and gain a lot.

Next time the lie is somewhat larger. Similar action. Same result.

Lesson well learned. Lie better and gain even more.

It happens again and the same result follows. More polished lies. Even more polished results.

The cycle goes on. It’s called negative learning.

Every time we get away with something, we learn that there are positive consequences to taking a shortcut or bending the truth.

I was speaking to a friend the other day. He has a very unique business in the factoring field, and he recognizes that he bends the rules — a lot (when I saw bending in this case, I don’t mean “ethically,” I mean in his due diligence). In fact, he knows that he is bending the rules, but at the same time he also knows that bending the rules in the way he has, has continued to be successful for him.

What does that suggest? It suggests there is a negative learning going on.

Bend the rules and produce a positive result.

My friend is not at all malicious. He’s making exceptions to the rules on an ongoing basis and realizes that some day it may came back to haunt him. On the other hand, so far so good with respect to the positive consequences produced from negative actions.

My Navigator has one of those automatic counters. It indicates how many miles to empty. The gas tank, of course, also signals a yellow light when the tank needs to be filled. A couple of weeks ago, I had completely forgotten about it and, when I looked up at the mileage, I realized I had zero miles left in the tank, according to the mileage counter, and a long way to go to the gas station.

Sweating the entire time, and expecting to have to make a call to somebody, I inched along close to 10 miles before I got to a gas station. I filled up the tank with a sigh of relief, but you know what?

Negative learning.

What I learned is that even when it shows zero miles left, I now have at least 10 miles in reserve.

Some lessons of life are as silly and inconsequential as filling up your gas tank. And others, as for President Clinton, can affect your very legacy in history. When we get away with a negative action because of a positive consequence, we’d better be thinking Providence and clean it up for the next time around.

Original writing date: November 1999

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