What I Have Learned About Learning from Experience

photo: sketch by Julie Gabrielli

When I was a brand-new parent, my friend Mara O’Connell gave me the best advice I’ve gotten in my life. I confessed to her how overwhelmed I felt with the responsibility of caring for such a precious, helpless creature. I had so much to learn; the enormity of what I didn’t know pressed on me like a heavy weight. I was frightened by it. Her advice was, don’t worry. You learn what you need to know, when you need it, little by little. As you go along.

I have come to appreciate that this is a perfect observation about life in general. Especially life as an innovator or entrepreneur. I don’t have to know everything there is to know about business, nor beat myself up about the things I don’t yet know or understand. In fact, what I DON’T know about business could fill a good-sized bookstore. Yet, somehow I don’t let that stop me.

"Experience is the best teacher" is something I have feared and felt in awe of all my life. I have tried assiduously to avoid learning that way, by studying hard, reading everything, mimetically emulating my mentors. Mapping out plans, ANYthing to avoid those harsh, unforgettable lessons. I dislike making mistakes, preferring to "get it right" the first time.

When I can relax and reflect back on what I have learned – as a parent, a wife, a colleague – of course, the most powerful and useful lessons – in fact, the ONLY ones that stick with me – were learned through direct experience. They are lodged in my body, my heart, my hands, and my brain.

When I was in college, I went on a summer study trip to Italy. We had a wonderful drawing professor, Carlo Pelliccia . He insisted that we draw all the time, recording the miraculous architecture, the street scenes, all the details we saw. To him, photography was a second choice after drawing for recording what we were observing and learning. By taking the time to really see and then creating a mind-body-hand connection, we would literally embody the proportions, the materials, the solid-void relationships, the forms. We would not only notice more, we would take those priceless lessons into our memories, hold them in our own hands, ready to be called upon during our careers as architects. This was his promise – and, of course, he was right.

Experiential learning is quite possibly the only path for entrepreneurs and parents. Sure, I can read up a storm, but when the real storm hits, I have only my wits and humor (and, ideally, compassion) to draw upon. Only one time did a book literally save me and my son, in the moment. He was about 18 months old and began choking on a piece of hamburger. Alarmed, I frantically held him while flipping through "What to Expect: The First Year" till I got to the section on choking, complete with illustrations. I followed their instructions to the letter, with great success. Thank God! We were both shaken, but otherwise unharmed. My faith in book-larnin’ was validated. But even then I knew the REAL lessons came from the experience itself. And, while I’ve forgotten the specific instructions from the book, I have never forgotten the lessons.

When next I find myself saying, "I won’t do THAT again. . . ," I hope I will recognize that another miracle has just occurred. I have learned from experience. Just what I needed to know, in that moment, at that time. Better yet – "Let’s do that again!" opens another door, encouraging me to step into life more fully.


Julie Gabrielli

Let’s live on the planet as if we intend to stay.

Read more inspirational musings here.

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