“The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely” (Sir William Osler).
IF WE WISH TO MAKE ANY POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION TO THE WORLD IN WHICH WE LIVE, EXPERIENCE IS SOMETHING WE’LL HAVE TO HAVE. For one thing, without any firsthand experience in dealing with the real world, we wouldn’t know what kinds of contributions need to be made. It takes a certain amount of hands-on involvement with the world before we begin to discern where the most critical needs really are. As Sir William Osler says, it is experience that teaches us to see wisely. But more than that, experience is where we gain the skills necessary to help meet the needs we encounter.
Gaining experience is inconvenient at the very least, and often it goes beyond inconvenience to outright pain. So we tend to shy away from circumstances in which we might gain experience. But we ought not to shy away from them; we ought to welcome them and enter into them. Life has to be lived to be understood. If we don’t gain experience, we’ll never know anything more than the theory of living.
But to see wisely and to understand life, we have to do more than simply pass through experiences in the world. As Aldous Huxley noted, “Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” So we need not only to enter into the experiences that are available to us; we need to think about them, learn from them, and drain from them every drop of wisdom that we can.
The wisest people in the world, however, are not simply those who’ve learned from their own experiences; they are those who’ve learned from the experiences of others. In particular, we need to learn from the mistakes of others. We need to be willing to be warned. So Virgil gave good advice when he said, “Believe one who has tried it.”
Whatever our work may be, we can’t delay doing it until we know how to do it perfectly. Knowledge and skill are essential, but they can’t be gained any other way than by experience. So having learned the fundamentals of our work, and having heard the warnings of those who’ve done it before, let’s dive in and get our hands dirty doing the things that need to be done in the world. It’s a long and winding road that leads to experience. No shortcut has yet been found.
“The work will teach you how to do it” (Estonian Proverb).