Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald: Practice Makes Perfect--July 14, 2008
Be an ape not a shark
The other night, I had dinner with friends from graduate school who were visiting for scientific meetings. Both have doctorates in animal behavior and study the learning process in various creatures. One friend examines learning in different shark species and the other does similar work with great apes. With these two the “table talk” at dinner was fantastic! My life must seem pretty tame to them with my steady stream of companion critters. The shark researcher said that most sharks learn faster through negative reinforcement. He said, “They learn from their mistakes.” The primate investigator countered, saying that his apes learned better with positive input. Driving home I thought, how do I learn best? Am I a shark or an ape? What about our staff? How do they learn the most and the easiest?
I must be a shark. I can tell you the names of every case that has gone sour for me in the last 25 years. Also, I have made every effort to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them. I cannot recall many of the animals whose treatment turned out right, but I can see the face of every one that went wrong. I cannot tell you the best way to learn. However, I feel that it is in no way negative; it must be relaxed, free of stress, with an open mind, a positive attitude, and a real desire to grow. In our profession, with a heavy caseload, one does not always have the luxury of stress-free, positive learning. We are forced to learn and learn quickly from our mistakes. Imagine the great tragedy if nothing is gained or learned from our shortcomings. We are then doomed to make the same mistakes over and over, and therein lies the bigger failure. It’s okay to fail; it is a shame not to learn from that failure.
Still, how much better it is to learn and teach lessons through positive paths. It is all right to fall. The trick is getting yourself up, dusting yourself off, and not being fooled the same way again. Forgive yourself as long as you endeavor to attempt to overcome your shortcomings. Be an ape not a shark. Make every effort to have an open mind and a positive attitude. Acquire new skills, learn new techniques. Dedicate yourself to continuing education and keeping up with the literature. Strive to be a positive role model in your practice by embracing change, staying open to new ideas, and owning up to your mistakes. Be a proud gorilla.
See you next week, Kev (Knuckle-headed Shark)