Learning by doing, by failing and by teaching

5 07 2013

They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I sincerely hope that is not the case as my dog Lola is the same, equivalent, age as I am and I’m currently trying to teach her not to cry outside my bedroom door at 6:30 each morning. By training here I really mean yelling, “Go back to your bed!” but it seems to be working. And if Lola can still learn then so can we all.

1. We are all learning all of the time
We tend to think of life-long learning as being all about courses, classrooms and certificates when in fact we are all learning new things every day. For example, this morning while walking Lola I collected some seeds from the path. I brought them home and identified them and I now know the difference between sycamore and field maple seeds. And later today I’m going to make a batch of elderflower wine. Of course it will be several months before I know whether I am any good at it and I will probably never be an expert wine-maker but I will have learned something new today.

2. Learning by doing
We tend to think that we have to learn from others, maybe from books or in a classroom yet the most profound learning experiences can come from just giving things a go. I ran a fantastically successful internet retail business for some 10 years. We started to sell on-line in 1996 so for the first few years we were absolutely at the forefront of this new technology. We had to write our own software to build our own on-line store, create our own secure interface to take on-line payments, write our own affiliates software, create our own on-line mailing lists and more. None of the off the shelf or plug in systems like Paypal or WordPress existed. We had to learn as we went along. We’d try something and if it worked we’d do more of the same. If we tried something and it didn’t work we would try something else. It was incredibly exciting and an amazing learning experience.

3. Learning from mistakes
And at the end of the business, when things had started to go less well, the biggest lessons were learned.

Many years ago, in the early 1990′s, when I was involved in technology transfer I was struck by the contrast between the attitudes of UK and US venture capitalists. In the UK if an entrepreneur had a business failure on their c.v. there was virtually no chance of that person getting funding for a new venture. In the US investors were more likely to fund a start up business where the entrepreneur had been in business before, even if that business had failed. The thinking was that the entrepreneur would have learned from previous mistakes and would be much less likely to fail a second time.

We all make mistakes, particularly when we are trying to learn new things. Whoever learned to ride a bike without falling off at least once? The key is to learn from each fall so that you don’t fall again, or at least don’t fall so far!

And I’m reminded of Justin Rose in his speech on winning the US Open Golf a couple of weeks ago. He said that golf was a game where you loose week in and week out. You learn to win by loosing all the time!

4. Learning by teaching
The best way to learn is to teach.
Around the turn of the century I was doing a lot of yoga and wanted to learn more and to improve my practice. So I took a teacher training course. By learning more about the postures and philosophy in order to teach others I was teaching myself too. And standing up in front of a class explaining why things are done in the way in which they are done is the very best way of grounding the knowledge in yourself.

And I know more mathematics now than I did when I was a teenager, mainly by virtue of helping my son with his maths homework!

Even if formal teaching isn’t for you, share your knowledge. By talking to others about the things you know you will be helping them and embedding your learning yourself. It will improve your confidence too. You’ll surprise yourself with just how much you do know when you are prepared to share that learning, skill or experience with others.



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