I have long labelled myself as someone who has to “learn from experience.” Many of the clearest lessons I have learned in life have been as a result of serious mistakes. Not risk-taking mistakes – the kind entrepreneurs and business leaders encourage. No, I mean the bull-headed, stupid, stubborn, arrogant mistakes of someone who simply wants to try things his way. I carry these lessons with me like cattle wear a brand. They are perpetual reminders of the right way to go because the wrong way left indelible scars.
Such lessons are the clearest and such learning is uniquely effective, but it’s not the best. Lessons learned through pain are unforgettable but not desirable. I learned mine by accident, through willful badness, not by choice. And what I learned was what I should have already known, what I had clearly already been taught. So I learned through ignoring truth and finding out the consequences. I learned what happens when I insist on my way, ignore God’s way, and lack the faith to believe what I was told and follow it.
Much of maturity is learning how to learn without needing mistakes to do it, especially not the intentional missteps. It is impossible to avoid mistakes; our knowledge and wisdom is too incomplete for that. But we grow in the humility to take advice. We can gain the faith to follow a path laid out for us. And we can hold fast to the memories of all our numerous previous mistakes by looking at our scars, feeling their unevenness, and recalling the pain.
The best lessons are ones we accept and absorb, not ones we learn by trying the opposite. It’s written all over scripture, stories of people as dumb as me insisting on trying things their own way instead of accepting the wisdom of God – a poor way to learn. “Learning from experience” doesn’t mean it has to be my experience. It can be the wisdom gained by others.
Don’t be a person who insists on learning from your own experiences if there is a clear way laid out for you. You will certainly learn something unforgettable, but those lessons hurt, the wounds are deep, and the scars jagged. Wisdom is to learn a lesson without being its object, to absorb truth and follow it without trying alternatives. And it so much less painful to you and everyone around you.