Which is best: learning from experience or from others?

This is a guest post by Austin Louis.

Is it better to learn from experience or from others?

This, surprisingly, was the question I came to when drafting a project outline for my Science, Technology, and Society class at Wayfinding Academy.

Before we dig into that question, let me first add a bit of context.

The assignment is called a Technology Investigation – the task is to dive deep into a technological concept and learn about its impact on us as individuals and as a society.

Via class discussion we decided that the word technology encompasses almost anything and everything that humans utilize. It can be something as solid as a smartphone or as theoretical as a shared mindset or tradition.

I chose to venture outside the box a bit for this project and investigate autodidacticism as a technology.

What the heck is autodidacticism? For those of you who don’t know (don’t worry, neither did I before researching) Wikipedia defines autodidacticism as “education without the guidance of masters (such as teachers and professors) or institutions (such as schools).”

When I read that I thought, “Sounds a lot like  self-directed learning – I wonder what the difference is, if there is one?”

That was one of the many questions I asked myself to begin my investigation. I made a list of questions to be answered and these questions turned into the outline for conducting research and planning a final video for the course:

When I attempted to answer those questions, however, I ran into a bit of a problem.

My interpretation of self-directed learning was not consistent with the definition of autodidacticism.

When I think of self-directed learning, I think of curating sources of information – gathering up whatever info I need to build the certain skill I want to learn. But some of those info sources are educational videos and podcasts and books and articles – all of which are created by people to be consumed by other people. In a way, these all have that element of “master/student” in them. This is explicitly what autodidacticism is not.

So then I thought, “What kind of learning truly does not require the “guidance of masters” in one form or another?” The answer I came up with was experiential learning. That’s about as individualistic as learning can get, right? Well, let’s check…

Experiential learning is defined by Wikipedia as “the process of learning through experience, and is more specifically defined as “learning through reflection on doing.” I think of experiential learning as all of those good things I talked about in creating those TEDxMtHood videos a few weeks ago – those elements of ideation, experimentation, iteration, reflection, and all that good learning stuff.

Now, this ultimately brings us back to the original question we started with: Is it better to learn from experience or from others?

For me, this is one of those genuine questions – those that I don’t pretend to know the answer to and am unsure if an answer really exists. I’ve recently learned to embrace these questions. When I’m able to let go of my attachment to finding an answer, I can learn a lot by just diving in and exploring what’s there. In my opinion, the real discoveries happen in search of an answer, not in finding one.

So, I took to a whiteboard and dove into this question.

I made a list of the benefits I notice when learning from experience and those when learning from others.

Some benefits of learning from experience: opportunities for reflection, very personal learning, internalizing the information, and unintended discoveries.

On the flip side, some benefits of learning from others: avoiding common pitfalls, not recreating the wheel, access to wisdom, and a vast source of information.

It became clear to me that one is not inherently better than the other. Both are extremely useful tools.

With that said, I seem to follow a certain pattern when using these tools. I’m naturally attracted to hands-on experience. I like to learn by doing. I need to “feel” something to be able to understand it on a deeper level. I need to understand why it matters to me. I need to develop that base connection with the thing I’m learning.

So for me, I need to learn from experience first.

Then, I can further my learning from a place of genuine curiosity. That’s when I seek out other sources and learn from others.

It’s a system that works well for me, and one that is visible in the projects that I take on and the skills that I build. And it will be the foundation for much of my work in my final year here at Wayfinding, work that I’ll continuing sharing with you as it grows and evolves.

For now, though, I’ll let you answer that question for yourself:

What does your balance between learning from experience and learning from others look like?

If you’re not sure yet, you might want to explore it a bit – chances are it will inform your future work for the better.

Till next time,



Want To Dig Deeper?

If you’re new to the idea of sketchnoting and excited to develop more visual thinking tools, I think you’d enjoy our foundational course An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking.

If you’re an educator interested in bringing visual note-taking into your classroom, check out Sketchnoting In The Classroom.

If you’d like to learn how to make videos with your visual thinking skills, we’ve got a course for that too! Check out How To Make Sketchnote Videos.

And if you want to create new personal and professional opportunities by sharing the authentic journey of your skill development online, check out Learn In Public.