Document Type



Research Summary: We reassess existing theories on individual failure learning and propose an inverted-U-shaped relationship between an individual's accumulated failures and learning, based on a theoretical framework that jointly considers the opportunity, motivation, and perceived ability to learn. Using data on 307 California-based cardiothoracic surgeons who performed coronary artery bypass graft surgeries in 133 hospitals between 2003 and 2018, we find compelling evidence that individuals reach a threshold at which they discontinue learning from their own failures. We also find that this threshold is higher for surgeons who had higher perceived ability to learn. This article aims to shed new light on the relationship between individuals' failure experience and their learning, and advance our understanding of the microfoundations of organizational learning, an important basis of firm performance. Managerial Summary: This article explores how individuals learn from their own failures. Contrary to prior theories, we propose a non-monotonic relationship between accumulated failures and learning: as a function of failures, an individual's performance will initially increase, then taper off, and finally decrease. Analyzing data on 307 cardiothoracic surgeons operating coronary artery bypass graft surgeries, we find such an inverted-U-shaped pattern. Notably, surgeons with higher perceived ability to learn—those with elite training, certified expertise, and specialization in patient care—reached the tipping point later than their counterparts. Our findings imply that repeated failures can have both beneficial and harmful impacts on individuals' learning processes, and therefore, both impacts must be simultaneously considered for understanding and improving individuals' performance.

Publication Title

Strategic Management Journal

Publication Date







individual learning, individual-level heterogeneity in learning, learning from failures, microfoundations of organizational learning, opportunity, motivation, and perceived ability to learn

Included in

Business Commons



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