Why you might not be making the best use of your experience

“If age imparted wisdom, there wouldn't be any old fools.” A bit harsh, but a valid reminder that mere length of experience is no guarantee for learning

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The conventional wisdom of growing through experiences is undoubtedly well-founded. However, people who have gone through similar experiences, do not necessarily walk away with the same outcomes. One reason why, is the degree to which they consciously and objectively analyze their experiences for learned lessons, with the objective of informing future action. In other words, the extent to which they reflect upon their experiences.

When you think of it, expecting to passively learn through things happening to you, is comparable to what students learn by just sitting through a class. There is definitely something to take away, but it is the extent to which students are actively engaged and invested in their learning process that determines how much they will benefit from this class.

Experiential learning as a continuous cycle

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle is a good way to visualize the learning process. According to Kolb, reflective observation is the way to build on experience and extract meaning and insight out of it. The process is not productive, however, until we have taken our conclusions into the real world to test and verify. It is a cycle where steps continue to feed into each other in a never-ending manner, as long as we continue to learn.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

An experience in this sense does not have to be a once-in-a-lifetime momentous event. Reading a book, attending a workshop, participating in a challenging project or even a difficult conversation can all be learning opportunities, if coupled with reflection.

Optimizing critical reflection

As is the case with any cognitive activity though, reflection may or may not be effective or fruitful. Depending on personal tendencies, some people might lash out at themselves in self-sabotaging criticism. Others merely review events to confirm pre-held opinions and reinforce their own thinking patterns. This is why using a framework to guide the reflection process could be of great value.

The following questions following Gibb’s Reflective Cycle can provide a practical framework to structure one’s thinking and make sense of tricky situations.

Reflection Framework Following GIBBS Reflective Cycle

Keep in mind that considering multiple perspectives, recognizing different interpretations for an event and challenging yourself to provide evidence for your own and for opposing assumptions go a long way in truly unwrapping and learning from an experience. On the long-term, incorporating these habits into your everyday thinking could make a difference between a lifelong learner and a self-complacent person disconnected from reality.

Now what

  • Developing a habit of regularly reflecting on your performance and behavior allows you to capture lessons in everyday situations you could likely miss otherwise.
  • Keeping a written journal or log to take down notes can make it easier for you to record and analyze experiences.
  • Thinking out loud with someone and sharing thoughts could be very helpful for some people. However, if you opt to do so, make sure you are sharing with a trusted person and you are still keeping the discussion objective.
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