My first conscious awareness of what constituted “experience” took place when I was fifteen years old. I was working in the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Toronto freight office at the most boring job I ever had. All I did for eight hours a day was sort waybills (the documents that accompanied freight shipments) into numerical sequence.
After about three weeks on this mind-numbing job I approached my supervisor, a Scot by the name of Bob Craig, and asked him if he could give me something more challenging to do. He suggested I remain on the sorting desk for another two or three weeks, saying that the extra “experience” would do me good. I told him that after that time I wouldn’t have an extra two or three weeks’ experience, but rather one hour’s experience another couple of hundred times over. He gave me the standard dour Scot’s stare over his reading glasses, but then moved me to a far more interesting job.
What I had realized was that for an activity to qualify as experience it had to afford me the opportunity to learn something that would be useful in my present situation or in future endeavours. Spending three more weeks sorting waybills didn’t qualify on either count.
A few years later I took the Dale Carnegie Course. At that time the course was marketed primarily as a course in public speaking, but the fact was that public speaking was simply the vehicle through which we were introduced to an array of people skills, taught how to manage stress, and shown how to become more confident and effective people. We were given weekly assignments to carry out and then we had to base our two weekly speeches on what we experienced while doing so.
One class member clearly didn’t even attempt to carry out his assignments with the result that he not only didn’t have any experiences on which to base his talks, but also suffered the experience most weeks of being embarrassed by his poor presentations. Observing this led me to the conclusion that the only thing tougher than learning from experience is not learning from experience.
It’s true, as the saying goes, that experience can’t be taught; but the best teachers are experienced people, not theoreticians. If an experienced person takes enough interest in you to pass along a few tips, you should always listen. In my broadcasting career I benefited more from advice received from people such as Betty Kennedy, Gordon Sinclair, Wally Crouter, and CFRB program director John Sprague than I did from taking the radio and television arts course at Ryerson. As a writer I learned an enormous amount from former Globe and Mail reporter and PR professional Dave Scott.
I’ve said many times that taking the Dale Carnegie Course was the most influential experience I ever had. That’s because the experience of having to speak in front of about forty people twice a week for fourteen weeks provided me with self-confidence that spilled over into every aspect of my life, and which was a particularly important component of my professional career.
I’ve been reminded many times that there’s no substitute for experience. You can’t learn to swim by reading a book; you have to jump into the water and get wet. As my father used to say, once you’ve had a bull by the horns you know a lot more about the experience than anyone who hasn’t.
Experience is not just what happens to you; it’s what you learn from what happens to you. Even a bad experience teaches. Next time, do something different.