As I’ve mentioned many times, I love aphorisms, epigrams, paradoxes, koans, allegories, fables, and teaching stories of all kinds.
And someone who is famous for the things he said, whether or not he actually said them, is the legendary baseball player, manager, and coach Yogi Berra.
He’s quoted saying many things that he didn’t actually say, such as “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
And like Yogi Berra, Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein, Mark Twain is often quoted saying things he never actually said or wrote.
So I looked very carefully to see if I could find out if Mark Twain actually made this famous observation about a cat and a hot stove that he allegedly made. And, I discovered, he did!
We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.
It’s a very important thing to remember: Experience is a great teacher, but it’s often a challenge to know the correct lesson to draw from it.
Poet Stephen Spender made the same point in his literary autobiography World Within World (Amazon). In writing about literary criticism, he observes:
[A writer] should remember that the tendency of reviewers is to criticize work not for what it is but for what it fails to be, and it is not necessarily true that he should remedy this by trying to become other than he is. Thus, in my own experience, I have wasted time by paying heed to criticism that I had no skill in employing rhyme. This led me to try rhyme, whereas I should have seen that the moral for me was to avoid it.
When my biography of John F. Kennedy, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, didn’t sell well—it didn’t “find its audience,” which is what they tell you when your book is a flop—I remember thinking, “There are lessons here for me as a writer, what are those lessons?” I didn’t want to learn the wrong lessons.
We need to make sure that we don’t learn the wrong lessons from pain, frustration, criticism, or failure. This is much harder than it sounds.