Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Three Kinds of Learning

 If the only way you can learn is through direct experience, your life will be one difficult struggle after another.

Note: this is a revised version of a September 1, 2009 posting

There are three kinds of learning that we, as humans, use.  We can learn through Direct Experience, Indirect Experience, or through Projected Experience.   What are these terms and what do they mean?  Let me explain.

First, I am not sure if I read this somewhere, or heard it or what.  Probably no idea is original to anyone, anyway.  And perhaps this is so obvious that you will say, "Well, Duh!"

But I think it bears expounding upon as it is a powerful and basic concept that underlies our entire human existence.

There are three kinds of learning and which kind you use largely determines your economic and social status in life.

What do I mean? Let me explain.

1.  Direct Experience

For the descriptions of these different types of learning, I will use the example of a child and the hot stove, as illustrated above.  At some time in our lives, we all learn not to put our hands on a hot stove (well, most of us learn this, some put their hands there again and again and never learn).

For many of us, this education comes from direct experience - we put our hand on the hot stove and get burned.  The brain is trained directly from this experience:  Stoves are hot and can burn.  Ouch, that hurts!

You learn DIRECTLY that hot stoves burn, and it is a direct and powerful lesson. While such lessons are STRONG, they are expensive.  But probably most of our learning is based on direct learning.

Most all of us learn from direct learning (except the few that bang their heads into the wall or touch hot stoves repeatedly). And many are capable of learning no other way.

The very poor, uneducated, and unsophisticated, for example, learn only from direct experience, and often, not even from that.  They make poor financial deals and get "burned" and often go back to the stove again and again to get burned some more.

But most of us, burned once or twice, start to catch on, even if our heads are particularly thick.

2. Indirect Experience

Indirect Experience requires a higher level of intellect and cognitive ability to process.   If you can learn from indirect experience, chances are, you will end up with a college education and also be fairly well off and middle-class.  Yes, sadly, so many people are incapable of this.

Getting back to our example, suppose you see your brother put his hand on the hot stove and then scream out in pain?  You learn indirectly that hot stoves can burn.  His screams of agony are a powerful reminder to your brain of one simple thing:  Stoves can be hot and dangerous and painful.

This is trickier form of learning, but a lot less painful (and thus less expensive).  It is also less powerful in terms of brain-programming value.  While seeing your brother burning his hand is a compelling image, it is not as compelling as the direct experience of pain on your own body.

If you are smart, you learn from the experiences of others through indirect learning, so that you don't have to go through such painful experiences yourself.

Fewer of us are capable of indirect learning, as it requires some intellect on the part of the student to make the connection between the bad experiences of others and our own selves.   And there are a number of barriers to indirect experience:

1.  We may initially use the poor planning of others to validate our own poor planning. Our neighbor goes into debt buying a new Hummer, a jet ski, a snowmobile, and a bass boat.  They can make the payments on all this junk, but the end result is poverty in retirement, if not bankruptcy and repossession in a few years.  However, if all we see is a neighbor with a lot of junk on his lawn, we might get the wrong message: "Hey, he can afford all that crap, I guess I can, too!"

2.  We may deny the experience of others applies to us.  Our neighbor finally goes belly-up, loses the house, loses the cars and the jet skis and the other crapola and ends up in bankruptcy court.  A valuable and powerful lesson, if you are willing to learn from it.  Instead, many folks think, "Well, he wasn't very fiscally sound - that could never happen to me!  I clip coupons, after all!"  The reality is, of course,  it hasn't happened yet but refusing to learn doesn't mean it won't.

3.  Bad data or no data may make applying indirect experience impossible. We see a neighbor struggle with bills and debt and should learn from that experience not to spend so much - or we would, if people were not so secretive and ashamed of how much they make and how much they spend (think about it - people will tell you the most intimate details of their sex lives before they tell you their salary or mortgage payment!). Lack of data (or bad data) is often the largest block to Indirect Experience - and the credit industry is all-too-happy to provide you with misleading data, and is all-too-happy that you may be too ashamed to be up-front about your own bad experiences with others.
Indirect experience can be a powerful tool, if you let it into your life and use it properly - to learn harsh new lessons, instead of merely re-validating preconceived notions.  Unfortunately, too many of us use indirect experience to follow the herd, rather than to learn anything of value.

3. Projected Experience

The most difficult and intellectual form of learning is projected learning. Very few of us are capable of this type of learning, as it requires some mental effort and the ability to connect different facts together.  If you can learn this way, you could become very wealthy, be or very smart, or both.

Particle Physicists and other scientists use this form of projected experience to theorize what would happen, if, say they collided some subatomic particles at high speed.  They then go back and verify these results with direct experience experiments - which often involve using cyclotrons or particle accelerators which are staggeringly expensive.  Thought experiments (Projected Experience) are very cheap, particle accelerators (Direct Experience) are staggeringly expensive.

Using our stove example, let's look at an example of projected learning:
1. We learn  that hot things can burn us.

2. We know that burning hurts.

3. We know that stoves get hot.

4. Ergo, if you put your hand on a hot stove, you will get burned.
As you can see, the resultant learning is only an unproven theory. The only way to test the theory is to go back to direct learning and put your hand on the stove.  You go first.

However, if your logic is sound, you should be able to project reliably, the correct answer, without having to verify it through a painful and expensive experiment or lesson that is direct experience.

Again, very few of us are capable of this sort of learning, or even indirect experience. We ignore the advice of others, assuming it does not apply to us.   We refuse to connect the dots between disparate facts and come up with reliable conclusions.

As a result, we experience far more pain and discomfort in life than we need to, because we refuse to go beyond direct experience.

* * *

As I said at the get-go of this blog, the idea behind it is to figure out how to live a better life with less effort, not how to recycle pocket lint.

The ideas posted here are an attempt at indirect and even projected experience. If you can learn from the experiences posted here (and not assume, falsely, that they somehow don't apply to you) then you can live an easier and less costly life, and thus work less and enjoy more.

If you can take the information here and project it to your own circumstances (rather than assuming it is irrelevant, because it does not fit your circumstances exactly) you may be able to extract some useful information.

However, if you insist on learning only by placing your hand on the hot stove, you will end up in a life of financial misery.

Just a thought.