Learning can take on two forms. We can put information into our head and we can put it into our character. School puts things in our head. It teaches fundamentals and gives us tools to begin the real learning that goes on out in the arena of life. English can teach spelling and grammar but does not create Pulitzer Prize writing. Math can teach rules and laws but does not teach creative engineering. Medical school can teach diagnostics and the use of instruments and surgical knots but does not create skilled or compassionate doctors and surgeons. An ethics class may give us a sense of right and wrong but not the motivation to be virtuous.

The necessary ingredient for a nexus between fundamentals and skill is experience. This applies to every facet of life, not just to vocations but to interpersonal success as well. For example, there is nothing like saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and feeling the embarrassment, or the empathy for the pain you have caused another, to teach the wisdom of zipping it or putting things another way the next time.

No matter how reasonable the counsel, we too often must live the experience and feel the pain before we really apply wisdom in our lives. This was brought so vividly to mind for me when I experienced a car accident. A lady ran a red light and I broadsided her in the middle of the intersection. Decades later I can still see her car rolling up on its side exposing the undercarriage. I remember how fast it happened and how helpless I was at that moment. I was only going about 40 mph but the sick crushing pain from the impact of my body on the dashboard and windshield stays with me to this day. Hobbling around on crutches for weeks nursing a knee injury is not something I wish to repeat either.

I gained a lot of respect for tons of moving vehicle and the cold and unyielding reality of momentum and inertia. Up until then, the danger of automobiles was an abstraction. I heard about it, studied it in driver’s education classes, saw the statistics, passed terrible accidents on the road and even lost relatives and friends to car accidents. It was still all theory; it wouldn’t happen to me. Well, yes, I realized it could, but it was a real long shot because I thought I was a good driver and in control of things.

Experience indelibly taught me that it can happen to me and that I better drive and live defensively. That experience I was fortunate enough to survive created a sense of caution and wisdom that may have more than once helped me avoid even greater disasters. That is the useful takeaway, not that life was unfair (“poor me”) or that God shouldn’t let me experience the pain.

It is not by book reading or listening to lectures that the old become wise (which has caused me pause more than once as I have worked through this book of words and counsel). It is in the school of hard knocks that people grow, mature and become sage. The more dramatic the life experiences the more profoundly we are shaped.

We could read every book in the world on subjects and speak to every person who has experience in them. But we will never know the true meaning of the death of a parent, spouse or child, getting divorced, having children, being imprisoned, abject poverty, marriage, sex, being robbed, having a fortune, being lost in the wilderness, life-threatening or debilitating illness, growing a successful business beginning with nothing, being down-sized or losing or gaining freedoms unless we live through such events.

I’m not suggesting we must experience all things. Hopefully we can be smart enough to learn some things from afar. But in most instance we can’t seem to really know until we live the experience. Experience gives an edge not obtainable by any other means.

As a young person I hated to hear, “You don’t have enough experience,” or “When you get older you’ll understand.” It was frustrating because it was a defeat I could not overcome other than by the addition of years. Yes, it is an unfair advantage to the older generation. But life is not even. (It is, however, fair.)

This explains why age and experience should be respected more than any other credential. The passage of years brings an accumulation of experience that always brings a measure of wisdom proportional to the amount of experience. If someone “has been there and done that,” we should pay heed far more than if someone is just giving advice because they heard or read such and such somewhere.

The trick to defeat the inexperience disadvantage is to experience as much as possible as quickly as possible until we have come to realize that experience is the best teacher. Then we can reach out for the wisdom of others and learn from their experience. That’s where intelligence comes in: not always having to put our hands on the hot burners in life and feeling the pain for every choice in life. At the very least we should learn from our painful experiences and change behavior.

Those who do not learn from others or from their own experiences miss the fullness of life and invite so much unnecessary misery. Even the lowliest of animals learn from stimuli. Nevertheless, our prisons are full of those who refuse to learn regardless of the stimulus. Political systems continue to repeat the same oppressive and dehumanizing control over populations. Environmental ruination marches on in spite of the lessons of history and the obvious fact that we should not foul our own nest. Non-thinking is everywhere.

Being a thinking person means paying attention to our own and others’ experiences and then changing. The difficult lessons in life may be painful – and often are – but look at such experiences as a gift, the best way of all to learn life’s lessons and become a better person.

For further reading, or for more information about, Dr Wysong and the Wysong Corporation please visit www.wysong.net or write to wysong@wysong.net. For resources on healthier foods for people including snacks, and breakfast cereals please visit www.cerealwysong.com.