There are two (well maybe more) basic kinds of learning – what you experience yourself and what you learn through the experiences of others. Let’s call the latter: learning vicariously. We regularly try to do both of these kinds of learning in everyday life. When we’re reading a how-to book, we’re learning from the experience of others. When we try something ourselves, we’re learning first-hand.
Learning first-hand has it’s pros and cons. If you do something wrong and learn from the experience how to do better next time or not make the same mistake again, then it did you some good. If you make a mistake, then repeat it, well, then the experience isn’t helping you much. Successes and failures of this kind can be of incredible value if you take the time to evaluate the experience. If you don’t bother to think about why something went wrong or right, then your future performance will likely be unaffected by the past, making the experience useless. In my book, Design, Code, Test, Repeat, I tell several stories about Bob’s, a friend, interviewing travails. For a while, Bob went to numerous interviews and found a way to blow each one. Finally, after some evaluation of his performance, he learned from his failures and made improvements.
Vicarious learning has similar pros and cons. If you read about someone else’s experience, but don’t find a way to relate them to your own, then you’ve failed to learn from it. This is why we still have thousands of drunk driving deaths every year – we fail to learn from the horrible experiences of others. However, if you take the time to examine the stories and look at your own behavior, then your future performance can be greatly affected.
The next time you read a story, ask yourself how it relates to your own life and see what you might do better if you follow the same path, or if there is something you could avoid if you don’t repeat the same mistake.