My Favorite Teacher: Experience

I have been blessed to have had many great formal educational experiences in my life. I am grateful for many school teachers who loaded my brain with knowledge. More importantly, I give thanks for those teachers who taught me how to think and to challenge conventional wisdom. And although I will always be indebted to great school teachers, the older I get, the more I especially appreciate one the greatest teachers of all – experience. Experience is the only thing most people get out of life. Unlike book learning, we almost always remember the lessons we learn from experience, especially when things do not go as planned. Said another way, we tend to learn a lot more from our failures than from our successes.

One of my many concerns about our current world is our paranoia over allowing those we love to fail. We give our kids trophies for merely participating in youth sports because we are too afraid they can’t handle not winning. We have become a nation of helicopter parents, as we hover over our children, not allowing them to experience the consequences of their decisions – if we let them make a decision at all. Megan McCardle, in her book, The Upside of Falling Down,* describes it this way:

This new generation was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.

McCardle points out some of the ramifications of this. One survey found that more than 45 percent of college freshmen had graduated high school with an A average. One high school had over 30 valedictorians because no one wanted to make a distinction among the kids. In poor schools, kids who can’t read are passed through to the next grade because it’s too much trouble – and an embarrassment for the teacher – to hold them back. But unfortunately, the world is different. There are winners and losers. The winners excel by setting themselves apart from the rest. The losers also set themselves apart for the rest, but the result is often the loss of a job, or worse, a loss of self-respect.

            As an old geezer, I realize we learn best through trial and error, especially when we fail, or at least when we get honest, accurate feedback. The movie, Ray,** tells the life story of Ray Charles, who started to lose his sight at age four as the result of glaucoma. He was totally blind by the age of seven. Under those circumstances, it would have been understandable for Ray’s mother, Aretha, to become a helicopter mom to Ray, hovering over him and helping him with (or actually doing for him) anything and everything he needed. But instead, as dramatized in this scene, Aretha let Ray fend for himself – and that made all the difference.

Currently, my favorite all-time movie is Slumdog Millionaire.*** There are many lessons I have learned from watching that movie (I will discuss some of those other lessons in later posts). But one great lesson from the movie is experience is the best teacher. Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of India, who plays India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Jamal, who has no formal education, is able to answer the game show questions by remembering certain experiences of his young life. In this clip, Jamal answers the second question by remembering how he became an orphan.

Let’s not be afraid to try and to fail, for every time you try and don’t succeed, you become an expert on at least one thing not to do.  As Aldous Huxley said it, “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” So try, fall down,  and get back up. Repeat as necessary.


*Megan McCardle, The Up Side of Falling Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, Viking, 2014.


Production: Universal Pictures, Bristol Bay Productions, and Anvil Films

Directed: Taylor Hackfield

Screenplay: Taylor Hackfield, James L. White

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Regina King, and Kerry Washington

Release Date: October 29, 2004

***Slumdog Millionaire

Production: Warner Bros., Celador Films, and Film4

Directed: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan

Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel by Vikas Swarup)

Starring: Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, and Saurabh Shukla

Release Date: December 25, 2008

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