“Lessons that come easy are not lessons at all. They are gracious acts of luck. Yet lessons learned the hard way are lessons never forgotten.”

— Don Williams

“Nothing in this world is a gift. Whatever must be learned must be learned the hard way.”

— Carlos Castaneda

“Humans hardly ever learn from the experience of others. They learn – when they do, which isn’t often – on their own, the hard way.”

— Robert A. Heinlein

“Mistakes are a part of being human. Precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it’s a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from.”

— Al Franken

“The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.”

— J. R. R. Tolkien

“So I had to learn. All my life. The hard way. And the hard way’s pretty hard, but not so hard as the easy way. I learned.”

— Terry Pratchett

“Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way.”

— Mary E. Pearson

I modestly but sincerely claim to be somewhat of an expert on learning the hard way. No idea whether this is a natural-born skill or I learned it somewhere (probably the hard way). All I know is that it works for me. Painfully.

Alternatives to learning the hard way

Learning the hard way can be difficult, painful, unpleasant, and often slow. There must be a better way:

  • Taking advice from experts
  • Being taught be experts
  • Reading a bunch of stuff written by experts

I use the term “experts” here because they figure in so much of what we hear today. “Experts say …” is a standard prefix to pretty much anything you want to say and have folks believe you despite little or no supporting evidence.

What do these alternatives have in common? They often have:

  • Lack of personal experience
  • Little or no pain (consequences)
  • No struggling with failure or mistakes

All sounds good, right? Who needs any more struggle and pain.

No pain, no gain

This seems to be a truism in athletic training and exercise: “The production of lactic acid actually plays a role in creating more blood flow to the muscles so that you gain more strength and endurance next time. So, yes, no pain, no gain is true for activities such as running, swimming or lifting weights.”

Does this apply beyond physical workouts? You bet!

The message here is that you do it. You don’t get fit by someone telling you how to exercise, or by reading about this, or having someone show you how. You get fit by doing the hard work yourself and pain tells you that you are getting there.

But not too much pain. Learning is important but survival is much more important. You have to learn how much pain is productive. How do you do this? The hard way of course.

Life is a workout for most of us

Apart from physical workouts, life itself delivers an overabundant flow of learning opportunities. You may already have noticed this. The trick here, learned the hard way of course, is to choose the right learning opportunities from the torrent.

“Chasing off in all directions” seems to be a very popular way to avoid choosing among directions. Over-commitment. Lack of clear focus. Burn-out. A learning-the-hard-way opportunity in fact. Assuming you are ready to learn.

“Obsession” is another source of learning opportunities. The downsides of a real obsession – “… a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly compelling motivation” – are pretty clear to most of us. But until the obsession delivers a serious problem – in the form of pain, we may not even think to address it. This is a different kind of pain: a message-carrying pain. We may be able to ignore it but we’ll likely end up trying to deal with it in some manner. How to do this? Painfully of course.

There are roughly a zillion ways, according to my last count, that life showers every one of us with valuable learning workout opportunities. What we have to learn (the hard way mostly) is which ones are the ones most worth pursuing. Worth the pain of learning.

Some things I have learned the hard way, and some, the easy way

Learning through personal, workout-type experiences is good but not all such experiences are good. Many best avoided if at all possible. This means learning as much as possible through someone else’s pain whenever you can.

What I learned the easy way was to search out information related to an important decision or action that I was considering as a first step. Anything high-stakes. This is really second nature for almost anyone who has worked in research or analytics. For others, it may take a special effort.

There is nothing new under the sun, so I have read many times. If so, then someone somewhere must have done something close to what I am considering. Often quite a chore to dig out such information and to ask others for ideas, opinions, and input but the effort is nearly always worthwhile.

You may still have to go through some amount of pain despite such input but rarely will it be a severe as diving in without proper preparation.

The game here is learning by using the least-painful-hard-way.

As always, the story gets much more complicated in reality, whatever that may be. Three personal examples:

1. Putting all of your eggs in one basket

This little lesson is especially pertinent today. Almost nobody has much experience with a COVID-driven world so most of what we think and do is being done in new ground. Nobody much out there to learn from.

I have counseled clients regularly in the need to diversify business sources and to spread risks. Concentrations of any kind are inherently dangerous.

Your concentrated core operation may be stellar and such an obvious winner that it doesn’t need to be tinkered-with. Until something that can’t happen ever – happens. Like COVID.

Amazon is a well-known example. It has a superstar core online selling business but has pushed into many other areas. Whole Foods, a physical retailer, was acquired in 2017. Amazon Prime delivery services by 2018 had over 100 million subscribers worldwide. Its diversity is enormous and vital today.

Many businesses are so focused on their primary activities that the concentrations are not clear or understood. Risk management practices have begun to address the dangers inherent in non-diversification but relatively few see this as a major area of risk in could-never-happen COVID times.

This caution applies even to the smallest businesses. You need revenue source diversification to make sure that the loss of any one source can’t take you under. Again, concentrations of almost any major sort are high-risk in unstable times. Diversity in every major aspect is essential. Concentrations work best in very stable times.

2. Build on your strengths

So many businesses do not seem to be aware of what their true strengths are, in my extended consulting experience. Many projects dealt specifically with identifying such underlying strengths. These strengths were often not what the managers thought they were.

This important lesson here I learned mostly the easy way through helping clients identify and build on true strengths. Applying the lesson to myself was almost a natural outcome.

There is a trick here – as you might have guessed. Your perceived strengths are often very different from your real strengths. Amazon started off as an online seller of all kinds of stuff. Its real strengths were not so much in the “all kinds of stuff” but in the convenience of online transactions. Customer reviews are also immensely helpful. Same with product variety. The stuff itself, not so much. Most stuff you can get elsewhere but far less conveniently.

Uber and Lyft, among others, are basically taxi services, hackneys that have been around forever in one form or other. Is ridesharing their core strength – leveraging independent (maybe) contractor drivers? People always need rides and taxis largely suck (my experience at least). Uber and Lyft don’t suck, speaking technically. What they really do is give passengers a convenient and innovative way to request and pay for rides through their smartphones. Convenience for a mostly inconvenient, hassle-ridden, traditional hackney business. This is a real strength.

Building on your strengths is a vital lesson and perhaps obvious to many. As just noted, you must know what your real strengths are in order to pursue this. How do you find out what your real strengths are?

In many cases, strengths – real ones – can be identified simply by observation of “what works” and “what doesn’t work”. Happy consultant stuff. Verification comes from testing each “what works” to confirm the identification. Often, such testing is not even necessary.

You will not be surprised to hear that in way too many cases, real strengths are not clearly identified. This leads to focusing on the wrong approaches and almost inevitably to another painful experience of learning the hard way. Sometimes fatally. Testing is very important.

3. Trusting “experts” without credible evidence

Most of us start off life with a great deal of trust so that we take advice in good faith. Developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson observed that the basic conflict of trust and mistrust is established and addressed from the time we are born to around 18-months of age. When trust is nurtured by others, it breeds more trust.

Over time, trust gets tested regularly. For many folks, it takes a pretty bad experience to damage or break trust. It seems human nature to want strongly to trust despite adverse experiences.

Engineers like me are educated to “trust but verify”. No matter what or who tells you something related to your work, you simply make sure that you get additional input and any objective verification. Mistakes in engineering can get things blown up and people killed. My design work was regularly checked by as many as a half-dozen people. For which I was very grateful. Everyone makes mistakes.

This valuable background left me with a built-in practice of checking anything that was important. Just because someone I respected told me something that I didn’t personally know from experience, I routinely sought verification. Not out of disrespect but simply caution. I have been misled quite a few times where I didn’t follow this path. Even true experts make mistakes and are flat-out wrong at times.

This is such an important lesson in my mind. No matter how well someone may be credentialed, they are not immune to mistakes or errors – intentional or otherwise. Where it counts, caution via personal learning is nearly always prudent.

I read so much today about “experts” of various kinds proclaiming things that could affect me greatly. Especially COVID-related things. For me, just seeing the label “expert” sets off all my warning bells. The “expert” may well be right but must be carefully checked against credible evidence that I have to dig out personally from elsewhere to be sure. Digging is often the hard way.

Trusting “experts” speaking for agenda-driven sources is something that I have learned mostly the hard way not to do.

Bottom line:

Learning the hard way means making mistakes, often painful ones. The “hard way” generally means pain. But taking great care never to make mistakes is itself a mistake since it avoids much valuable learning. The trick here is to make only non-fatal mistakes. So much of real learning comes from personal mistakes. The hard way works and is so important.

Related Reading

Donnalynn Civello in her book “Maybe Learning the Hard Way Is the Only Way” had a nice simple take on this whole subject:

“… is the ONLY WAY to learn. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be anything to learn. It would only be to enjoy. Pain is our greatest teacher and our greatest fuel for change. Anything worth having in life is worth the fight. Anything you can walk away from isn’t worth your time.”

“Struggles make us better. When there is an investment in energy and awareness, you grow. No pain, no gain. The difficult times slow us down, make us more conscious of our behavior and force us to seek out new alternatives that we may have never experienced.”

“In short, learning the hard way opens you up to deeper experiences that enrich the soul and challenge the mind. Learning the hard way teaches you deeper strategic tools for your growth and development. Learning the hard way gives you character. Learning the hard way makes you resourceful and better able to anticipate changes.”

“Learning the hard way is the only way to learn. Otherwise you are just being handed the answers. Learn to find those answers yourself and learn to uncover them through your darkest night. Once you learn things the hard way, you learn that you can do anything.”

Frank Sonnenberg in his “Why Learn the Hard Way?” offers some interesting ideas about why we avoid learning the “hard way”:

Some Folks Never Learn a Lesson. Ask yourself, “Do I have 20 years of experience or one year of experience repeated 20 times?” Here are 12 reasons why people learn the hard way. They say:”

  1. ‘I already know how it’s done.’ Some folks think they know it all and don’t have anything left to learn.
  2. ‘I’ll never be in this situation again.’ Some people refuse to take the time to learn from an activity that might not occur again — even though it probably will.
  3. ‘It won’t matter anyway.’ Some folks think most failures are beyond their control — so learning from them is pointless.
  4. ‘I don’t have time.’ Some people are too busy to think about, much less learn from, their mistakes.
  5. ‘I’m rarely wrong.’ Some folks believe they don’t make mistakes. Obviously, they’ll never learn.
  6. ‘I always do it this way.’ Some people do things without much forethought. The last thing on their mind is applying lessons learned.
  7. ‘What do they know?’ Some folks avoid feedback like the plague. They believe that if they don’t know about their flaws, they don’t have any.
  8. ‘No one ever told me.’ Some people live or work alone. They repeat mistakes because they’re unaware of them.
  9. ‘It looks good to me.’ Some folks have a weird sense of reality. Whenever they make mistakes, they convince themselves otherwise.
  10. ‘I’m so unlucky.’ Some people believe a mistake is the result of bad luck. In that case, it’s pointless to learn from it.
  11. ‘I don’t care how others did it.’ Some folks refuse to consider whether something’s been done before — much less apply lessons learned.
  12. ‘I’m too old to learn a new way.’ Some people think they’ve been “at this for so long” there’s no need to learn. That’s a mistake!”

Amy Rees Anderson has a different opinion on this: “We can learn it the easy way or we can learn it the hard way and only we can decide which it will be”:

“As I’ve grown older and wiser in my life I’ve tried to be open in telling people what a mistake it was for me to learn things the hard way in hopes of inspiring them to be smarter than I was and be willing to learn things the easy way. “

“There are two ways we can learn – there is the easy way or the hard way – and take it from someone who has done far too many things in life the hard way…the hard way is never worth it.  Not only does it bring unnecessary pain into your own life, it inevitably ends up hurting people you love in the process and seeing those you love hurt is the worst kind of hurt to bear.”

“I will freely admit that taking the easy way presents its own set of difficulties – it takes a tremendous amount of humility to be willing to learn from the mistakes of others. It often takes serious self-reflection and a willingness to see beyond our own sphere of thinking. And as in my story about the hot pan of cookies, it takes being willing to have the patience to wait for something you truly want to be safe to touch. And all of these qualities of humility, self-reflection, an open mind, and patience (especially the patience part for me) take a conscious decision on our part to have and they don’t always come naturally. And the fact we call this path the “easy way” tells you just how difficult and painful the “hard way” must be.”