Maggie Phelps: We learn by experiencing success, failure

June 15, 2018

phelps maggieThink for a moment. What was one of your most vivid and memorable learning experiences? Take a few seconds to consider it. When was it? Where were you? What were you doing?

I have a guess: You were not sitting idly in a classroom. You might not have been in a classroom at all. You were active and engaged in something beyond studying a textbook.

I asked some close friends these very same questions recently. One friend described learning to drive with her dad, stopping in the middle of the road, scared to death and breaking down in tears. She said, “I learned I had to have confidence and not panic in a crisis.”

Two other friends recalled experiences with special grade school teachers who created games and competitions for learning—unique approaches that made them excited about math and science. Others pointed to things like getting outside, traveling, role playing, times they failed miserably, and times they improvised and found success.

It’s not rote memorization or standardized tests that we remember (except for the painful all-nighters we spent preparing for them). It’s experiential learning that resonates deeply. In experiential learning, the learner is the self-teacher. We are immersed in new experiences and we learn by doing.

When was the last time you did something for the first time? When was the last time you started something and had no idea how to finish it?

We get comfortable with what we know. Studying a book and reading the paper are easy ways to stay informed and “continue learning,” but do those things make you grow?

When we put ourselves in uncomfortable or unknown circumstances, it forces us to develop new skills. When we take risks, we discover what we are really made of—our grit, determination and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The more we stretch ourselves, the more we realize we can trust ourselves the next time we’re faced with an obstacle. When we reflect and intentionally take time to consider the experiences we’ve had (not collecting them for the world to see, but holding them selfishly as a part of our unique experiences), we grow. Our attitudes and ways of thinking evolve.

In exploring ourselves, the world takes new shape around us and we see things differently. It’s not some blaze of light that we follow into “enlightenment.” It is murky and elusive. Sometimes risk leads us to a bad place, failure. Even though entrepreneurs and innovators tell us to “fail fast” and “fail forward,” it’s not a fun thing. Failure is hard. But along with it comes the opportunity to fight and claw our way out, and that fight makes us better.

Think of failing fast as learning quickly. People who get this and learn quickly have trained themselves to blaze through failure as fearless learners. These people learn constantly; they see it as a way of life. We need more people, at any stage in their life, who are hungry for learning. And we need leaders who simultaneously commit to their own continued learning as well as guiding others through their own learning experiences.

If you haven’t been uncomfortable lately, I challenge you to step outside your box. I encourage you to be a learner and boldly pursue new experiences. Have respect for the rules but a willingness to think beyond the boundaries. We don’t even realize the limitations we build for ourselves, until we are finally through them.

If you are someone others look to for guidance, in the office or outside of it, you have an obligation to be a champion of learning. If you buy into the notion that learning by doing is a powerful approach, then you’ll recognize that to teach or lead, we must not dictate. We must guide. It’s our job to bring people along, show them the way, suggest, and then relinquish control, recognizing that mistakes will happen. Let people fall and pick themselves back up.

A woman at church this week described a memory of her 18-year-old as a small child, playing at the playground and bumping his head trying to walk under a slide. He tried repeatedly, dumbfounded that he couldn’t walk underneath it. She watched it happening and she saw his repeated failure and she did not go over to help him. In that small, seemingly insignificant moment, she empowered him to problem-solve through it himself. She gave him the gift of independence.

Give yourself the space to learn. Provide others the space to learn for themselves. Ditch your roadmap or your lesson plan every once in a while, because—as Oscar Wilde said—“experience is the hardest [and best] kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.”•


Phelps is leadership initiatives manager at United Way of Central Indiana.

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