Experience is the Best Teacher, But Only If You Do These 3 Things

Doug Staneart  |  March 5, 2020
last updated

Who said that experience is the best teacher? Well, just about everyone who has ever taken a class on a subject and who later struggled to apply the content. In fact, one of the reasons why we attract so many people to our leadership classes is that we understand that people learn by doing.

When a teacher or coach gives us instructions, their words are just theoretical knowledge. However, when we put those words into practice and experience success, the words become very practical. So, this statement is absolutely true that when you consider how the repetition of new experiences builds confidence in a skill.

However, this statement is also absolutely false — at least in the way that most people understand it. Because when people see the word “experience,” they automatically think of their own experiences. A truer statement would be that “someone else’s personal experience is the best teacher.” A good coach is a better way to shorten the learning curve exponentially.

Here is a simple example. Let’s say that you want to take up golf. Since experience is the best teacher, all that you would need to do is get a lot of experience playing golf, right?

Well, not exactly. Most likely, you will get really good at a bad golf swing. You will create habits out of new things (that you’re doing incorreclty) that become engrained. A lot of time, these habits will become tougher to overcome as you practice more and more. Alternatively, if you work with a golf pro who has decades of experience, you can shorten your learning curve dramatically.

A Good Student Will Always Surpass the Teacher.

My goal as a coach is always to help shorten the learning curve of the people that I’m coaching with my first-hand knowledge. As a result, they don’t have to go through years of experience and all the turmoil I did to learn these skills. Instead, they can learn to make better decisions from my experience and not have to make the same mistakes. If you want to be a leader in your organization, your goal should be to help your team surpass you as well.

A couple of years after I started The Leaders Institute ®, I hired a young guy who had just graduated from college. I spent a couple of years grooming him to be a presentation skills coach. He was a fantastic student with years of professional education.

Before long, he became one of our most popular coaches. Big companies all over the world were asking for him by name, and he wasn’t even 30 years old yet. He had accomplished more as a coach in less than four years than I had in over a decade.

Think of this process like climbing a mountain. For the first person, the trip is really difficult. However, if that person creates handholds and footholds in the rock, the path for the second person is easier. As more people make the trek, rope ladders are created. Later, maybe a chairlift is installed. As each new generation improves the path, the trek is much easier for the next generation. To be a good leader, you have to go outside your comfort zone to create that path during your trip. Then, make the road easier for future generations.

A Simple Way to Make Your Experiences the Best Teacher for Future Generations.

When I was a kid, my dad caught me stealing a dollar from his bedside table. I was mortified because I knew that I had disappointed him. Instead of spanking me or getting angry with me, though, he used a powerful teaching technique.

My dad didn’t invent this technique, by the way. It is the same technique that Aesop used in his fables written over 2000 years ago. Dad told me a story about a time that he made a mistake. Then, he used that story as a way to get me to not make the same mistakes he did.

Dad told me about a time when he was a soldier in the army. He and his buddy had a weekend pass to go into town. Back then, the base would allow the GI’s to use the base Jeeps as long as they returned the vehicles with a full tank of gas. My dad’s buddy, however, worked in the motor pool. So, they realized if they just filled up the gas tank as the base’s gas pumps, no one would know (and they wouldn’t have to pay out of their own pocket!). The plan worked like a charm until a Military Policeman happened to drive by as they were filling up. Dad said that the MP took him and his friend into custody. Luckily, he had an understanding commanding officer who let them off with a reprimand. However, if he had been charged, he could have been sent to federal prison for years.

When he finished the story, he just said, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did. You have your whole life ahead of you and you can accomplish things I never dreamed of.”

Share an Incident that Relays Your Experience.

Step one to use this fantastic technique is to get really good at relaying your real-life experiences to others. This is what creates a shortcut for future generations. For instance, if you worked on a project for three years, you likely experienced challenges along the way. You earned true wisdom by overcoming those challenges. Later on, someone who works for you on a future project doesn’t have to make the same mistakes. All you would need to do is tell the new person about the challenges you met, the wrong things you did, and then point them in the right direction. Being a great teacher is a really simple, but often overlooked part of being a leader.

Here is a good example from a real-world experience. Years ago, the IRS in Utah hired me to do a leadership program. One of our account managers wrote up a letter agreement with their office address in Ogden, UT. On the morning of the event, I drove to the security gate at their office. After 20 minutes, the security officer told me that he couldn’t find my name on the guest list. I called my client who was confused. He had personally talked to the security guard minutes ago. He apologized and offered to come to get me.

A few minutes later, he called me back asking me where I was. I told him I was at the security gate. He told me that the building didn’t have a security gate. That was when it hit me that I was at the wrong building — in the wrong city. Although the IRS office who contracted with us was in Ogden, the class was in Salt Lake City. I scrambled to get to the class as soon as possible. It actually turned out to be a pretty good program. It was just embarrassing.

Finish Your Story with a Moral or an Action Item.

The incident or the experience that you share makes your wise words easy to listen to. This is especially true if you are sharing a mistake that you made. No one wants their boss to tell them that they screwed up. However, if the boss shares an experience where he or she screwed up, the story is easier to listen to. If you stop there, though, your team members will just think that you are an idiot at the end of the day. The secret of this technique is to finish the story with a moral.

This is what Aesop did. At the end of every fable, he put, “The moral of the story is…” You should do the same thing. It doesn’t really matter how you phrase it. You could say, “My point is…” or “The reason I’m telling you this is…” or “The action I want you to take next time is…” Whatever words that you use, though, the best way to make it stick is to give a single moral.

For my IRS example, a good moral might be, “So, when you create a letter agreement, make sure to list both the mailing address and the event location.”

Wrap Up Your “Experience Is the Best Teacher” Lesson with a Benefit.

Finally, tell your listener how he or she will benefit from doing what you are asking them to do. We all like to think that we are altruistic. However, for the most part, we are all pretty self-centered. So, after you relay the experience and add the moral, end with a benefit to the listener.

For the IRS example, a benefit might be, “If you do this, you will be less likely to get a call from an angry customer wondering where his instructor is.”

The person who you are coaching will likely think, “Gosh, I don’t want that to happen. Maybe I should follow this advice.”

Share Your Experience With Others

Share Your Experience with Others to Really Make Experience the Best Teacher.

Just follow the simple, three-step process.

  1. Share Your Experience With Your Team in a Story Format.
  2. Tell Them the Moral of the Story.
  3. And Tell Them How They Will Benefit from Your Advice.

If you do this, you will help shorten the learning curve of your team and faculty members.

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author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.
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