The purpose of learning is to make our lives easier. When a mistake has been made, learn from it and avoid it in future. That seems easy enough.
But, how to learn? What to learn? And, when to learn it?
What to learn is fairly obvious. The best choice is to learn the things you need to know to be a productive, prosperous and contented adult. Skills that let you earn a living, for example. Life skills that let you know how to take your children camping or how to hit a golf ball. Important skills like how to recognize poison ivy and how to recognize a guy in the parking lot who is on meth.
What to learn is maybe not so obvious after all. Maybe learn a little about everything that comes your way and focus more intently on the usable aspects of that.
When to learn is a problem. Things learned out of order are not especially useful. In the 1920’s quantum theory was difficult to address because the required math did not develop until well after the original discovery. Helping someone to learn requires providing order to the parts.
How to learn is easy for some people. They absorb everything near them. Like a two-year-old. For most of us though, we have a preference. Some people learn by watching others, some learn by reading or taking courses. Some listen carefully. Some pay attention to their own actions.
Learning from your own mistakes is likely the most valuable because the hard lessons are the best remembered. Unfortunately these lessons are usually the most costly. Experience is the best teacher and for the price it better be.
The key is to not learn exclusively from your own mistakes. Learn from the mistakes of others. The lesson is not quite as effective but the cost is negligible. That is what education is about. Learning from the mistakes and insights of others. We sometimes undervalue education because it is so stylized. If it were taught in the form, Here is a mistake someone made and here is what they could have done instead, it might work better.
As the new year begins and you assess what you should do for personal advancement consider being more curious. That will help you learn from others. Notice what is going on around you and estimate causes and probable outcomes. You will be wrong a lot of the time but you will get better and something you learned in one context will suddenly reappear in another as an important thing.
Avoid the serious mistake of trusting only your own experience. Look for the mistakes of others for guidance.
It is -15 Celsius here this morning. I know, without having tried it that, licking a metal post today will be a bad idea. I learned that from a friend when we were seven. Thanks Mike.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.
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