Direct Exploration

While we can learn a lot from other people, such as from books, courses, classes, and online resources, I often find it valuable to learn from direct experience, even when doing so is slower and more error-prone.

There’s something special about exploring in the dark, gradually figuring out your own ways to accomplish something instead of having ready-made solutions spoon fed to you.

You can always look up a recipe for any dish you can imagine, but it can be more rewarding to set the cookbooks aside and bumble your way through. Maybe you’ll discover a dish you really like making. One of my favorites – the ultimate rice bowl – wasn’t discovered in any recipe book. I figured it out from personal experimentation. It’s simple and easy to make, and I love making it now and then. And since I figured it out myself, I also know many different ways to vary the recipe and have it still work, and my understanding of rice bowls is more robust because of that. I feel more confident and competent in this area because I’ve mapped much of the territory personally, as opposed to relying on a guide to tell me the highlights.

The risks of experimenting on your own include making more mistakes, getting stuck in pitfalls you could have avoided, and doing extra work to “reinvent the wheel.” But even when you’re rediscovering what’s already known to many other people, the personal experience of discovery can be more rewarding, and your knowledge will likely be less fragile. Your discovery of the wheel will be uniquely your own – and a lot more special than just buying a wheel.

Many years ago I decided to build my own PC by buying all the component parts from various sources and assembling it myself – motherboard, CPU, RAM chips, graphics card, hard drive, case, power supply, etc. It wasn’t worth the effort to save a little money, but I felt a special connection to that PC for years because I assembled it myself. It wasn’t just some mass market machine I’d bought from Dell. And the machine I built worked better and lasted longer than the pre-built ones I bought around the same time.

This month I’ve been experimenting with music composition again, mostly by messing around in Logic Pro. There’s a lot I don’t understand about how to layer a composition, so some of my experiments didn’t sound very good. But even though I could learn this skill faster from people with experience, I like fumbling around to see what I can figure out on my own. The discoveries feel more rewarding when I stumble upon them versus if I learn them from someone else.

This skill comes in handy in business too, especially when diving into something new. I didn’t know how to generate income from blogging when I first started in 2004 because blogging was still relatively new. So I experimented with income generation to figure how to make my work financially sustainable. I still got ideas from other people, but I had to test them in different ways to understand how to apply them to my business. Since I directly experimented a lot, I now know many effective ways to cover expenses and then some, so I feel confident and secure with income generation too. It’s just another rice bowl to me.

When you learn from other sources, you may acquire knowledge that’s more structured but also more fragile and rigid. You probably won’t gain the range and flexibility that comes from direct personal exploration.

I have degrees in computer science and mathematics, but what I learned in school wasn’t very helpful when I set out to design and program computer games. Most of the academic knowledge I’d gained was way too narrow and brittle. I advanced faster by studying programming on my own – often just by messing around to see what I could do. I also coded in different languages and on different types of devices. I learned so much more about coding by tackling dozens of small projects than by studying techniques from others. And learning coding on my own was way more fun, engaging, and interesting than formally studying it in school.

This isn’t an either-or proposition. Learning from others can be immensely valuable too. I’ve had some wonderful breakthroughs on that side as well. Just watch out for areas of life where you lean too heavily on the side of structured study and overlook the incredible long-term value of direct exploration. Use formal study to seed your own experimentation, not as a replacement for it.

Receive Steve's new articles by email.