Learning by Doing

When it comes to trying something new, my approach has often tended toward signing up for courses and/or reading a lot of books about whatever that new thing might be. There is much to be said for this approach, and especially for the process of learning in company with others under the guidance of a skilled instructor. But when I finished graduate school last spring, I felt as if I’d sort of maxed out on the classroom learning experience for a little while. A great course will leave you with a better understanding of how much you do not know. It will give you the space to experiment with new ideas and the tools to continue learning on your own. And I have had many great courses. Consequently, at the end of many consecutive years as a full-time student, I began to feel completely overwhelmed, and a little paralyzed, by how much I did not know. There is only so much you can prepare and test your wings before venturing beyond the nest.

In one of my first job interviews, I was asked if I had ever done anything for which someone else’s resources were at stake. I asked for some clarification and still fumbled for a response. She wanted to know, I think, whether I had ever handled a budget other than my own or given a presentation that mattered for anything other than a grade. I hadn’t, or at least, I couldn’t come up with a good example, and I didn’t get the job.

That conversation stuck with me over the following months as I learned a slew of new things through a process of trial and error (emphasis on the “error”). My history of Google searches would be telling: “tips for phone interviews,” “define freelance,” “affordable health insurance,” “chicago manual of style vs. AP,” “how to write an invoice,” “InDesign tutorials,” “html tutorials,” “what is work/life balance.”

The Google searches have sometimes helped, but mostly, I’ve been learning by doing. It can be a messy and frustrating way to learn, especially for a perfectionist like me who would prefer to do everything the “right” way on the first try. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear instruction manual for how to make the transition from being a student to earning a living, probably because there are as many ways to do it as there are people making that transition. There is no better way to figure out what works for you than to try and fail and then try something different.

Since that early interview, I realized not only that I would need to make an effort to take more risks, but that I would need to seek out people I admired who would value my potential and be willing to take a chance on me. Every CEO had a first job once, every author has had a first publication, and every great [insert dream job here] has made mistakes. And thank goodness for that. One hopes it is reason enough for a bit of humility and for the graciousness to encourage, mentor, and respect those who come along after.