One of my favourite comedians, Emo Phillips, tells his audiences that he learned about women the hard way - from books.
In a recent conference session about learning, we split into small groups of three and were asked to each share a story of a time we had recently learned something, preferably as a consultant and preferably from a project with a client.
After we told our stories, which definitely came from direct experience, not from books, we then discussed what constituted the learning. Were there elements in common that might suggest a definition?
All of our stories featured a significant contrast: one way of doing something on one occasion, then another way at another time, of which one worked out a bit better. The learning hinged on picking up the one that was a bit better and re-applying it in sufficiently similar contexts.
We do lots of different things, with many possible contrasts. What puts the worthwhile ones onto the map? We wondered which come to our attention most usefully?
Learning is also to do with keeping the information from before alive now… How do we do that? Definitions can sterilise or even kill good ideas. As Wittgenstein suggested, definitions need to be kept close to the experiences that generate the definition. Don’t take them too far from their contexts and still expect them to function too well for you.
So this brief discussion revealed one good sense of ‘learning from experience’. And, especially, of sharing of experience through discussion - a collective endeavour in learning.