Learning to Learn from Experience

After giving a commencement speech at a professional school, I sat down with the intention of relaxing. But soon I had my pen out and I was taking notes because I was learning from experience–someone else’s experience.

One of the students was about to name a faculty member that all the students had selected as best teacher. She shared some background about the teacher. The recipient was in her second teaching year. This is unusual. It occurred to me that the recipient must have been a naturally gifted teacher. I was terribly wrong.

The student suggested that the recipient started out as a most inadequate teacher. Yet, to the shock of the students, she took their feedback and the students witnessed an extraordinary outcome.

In her response to the award, the teacher described her first semester. She was new and insecure. Basically she was putting up slides with content and reading from the slide. She then told of an intense, personal learning journey and closed by saying “you need to reflect on your performance each day.”

She was not suggesting a casual review of the day. She was suggesting a disciplined review of the day. Few people seek and engage real feedback and few people engage in a disciplined review of their day.

I was so intrigued that after the ceremony I sought out the teacher and asked her to tell me her story. She recounted her first semester. She said the feedback was excruciating. I knew what she was talking about. If I have one student who gives negative feedback, I obsess over it for weeks. The notion of getting negative feedback from every student suggests extreme pain and it would make me want to run away and hide.

This woman made an unnatural decision. She decided to step into the pain and stay in the pain until she knew what to do. She spent the entire summer pondering and strategizing over each negative message.

On the first day of the next semester, she shared her first semester experience. She shared the feedback, and she shared what she learned from the feedback. She had the class do some brainstorming about the course. She had them share their expectations for her and she shared her expectations for them. They created a purpose and a contract with feedback built in.

As they moved forward, the teacher and the students became deeply bonded. The shocking result was a best teacher award. In her acceptance of her award, the teacher told the graduating students that she believed pursuing a purpose and attending to feedback was crucial to growth and that they needed to reflect on their performance each day and pay attention to what experience was teaching them.

Most of us take it for granted that they we are learning from experience. Our assumption is correct: we are always learning from experience. But what is the quality of our learning? Most people, most of the time, learn passively. We only attend deeply to our experiences when we are in some kind of pain.

When the above teacher was facing failure, she entered the process of deep learning. She took her students’ feedback and she began to study it out in her mind and to ask what was right. As she did, she formulated new strategies and her strategies took her to success beyond her expectation.

When we discover the power of learning deeply from our experiences, we begin to see the value of doing it in a proactive way. We realize that we do not have to be in pain to learn deeply. We can learn deeply because we live with passion about our purpose.

Because this woman moved from pain to success, she fell in love with her students and with the process of teaching. She was anxious to learn proactively from her experiences and she now wants her students to do the same.

When we are committed to a higher purpose, we are going somewhere but we do not know how to get where we are going. We have to act, seek feedback, and evaluate what we learn. When we have a higher purpose, we begin to see our daily experiences as nuggets of gold. We dig them up, we examine them, we shine them, we preserve them, and we live in increasing abundance. I am grateful that when I was determined to relax, I was inspired to learn from the experience of someone else, a woman who had learned how to learn from experience.


  • What are the two ways to learn from experience?
  • How often do you do a disciplined, daily reflection on your performance?
  • What would happen if everyone who worked with you engaged in a disciplined, daily reflection on their performance?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



5 thoughts on “Learning to Learn from Experience

  1. This is quite inspiring, Dr. Quinn, and not easy to do. So the story of how it works in real life helps to venture into the pain and grow. Thanks for your inquisitive nature to ask about the situation and share it with us.


  2. Thank you for this post. Your posts always make me stop and reflect and I often feel changed as a result of reading them. This post is particularly powerful and inspiring. With thanks again Moira


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