The Easier Alternative to Learning Things the Hard Way

How I finally learned that you don't have to learn everything the hard way.


Only a month ago, I proposed the following thought starter:

  • 👷‍♂️ Learn hard. Something I had to learn the hard way: By far the best way to learn is to learn the hard way.

If you’d had asked me then, I would have told you I’m 85 percent confident that’s true.


Thanks to a semi-make-believe conversation with two of the most revered thinkers of our time, I’m down to 15 percent.

Learning the hard way1defined as “learning through the personal experience of making mistakes.” may be the go-to approach for picking up languages, figuring out how to walk, and generating blog content. But for major life lessons like where to invest your time, money, and heart, there’s a better way to learn—easier, too!

I wish I’d realized this sooner. Not doing so made my life more difficult than it needed to be. But I guess you could say I had to learn this easier way to learn the hard way?

Well, lesson learned. It’s time to try learning in a new way.

Consider this…

It Started With a Shift to My Non-Fiction Fix

My path toward accepting this easier way to learn started mid-September last year. That’s when I listened to the heavy favorite for the 2022 Unrutty Award for best podcast episode of the year:

David Senra’s appearance on the Invest Like the Best podcast.

Senra’s obsessed with biographies. And his passion convinced me and tens of thousands of fellow wannabe game-changers to put down our pop sci non-fiction books and pick biographies up, too.

I went on to read about the lives of:

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger (Total Recall)
  • James Dyson (Against the Odds)
  • Sam Walton (Made in America)
  • John Wooden (My Personal Best)
  • Paul Orfalea (Copy This!)
  • Scott Adams (How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win)
  • Will Smith (Will)

I enjoyed reading their stories. I enjoyed extracting my own lessons from them. And I enjoyed listening to Senra’s podcast on each book afterward to compare his takeaways with mine2Thanks to the lesson I learned last year on the value of book summaries..

But none of these biographies convinced me against learning the hard way. If anything, they inspired me to do hard things that make for stories others will want to read and make podcasts about.

What I had yet to realize was this:

There’s a difference between doing hard things and learning the hard way.

My hard head only finally made the distinction last week.

Charlie and Warren Disagree With Me

Most recently, I followed Senra’s endorsement to start reading a non-biography: Peter Bevelin’s All I Want to Know Is Where I’m Going to Die So I’ll Never Go There.

The book is about a “Seeker” who enters a “Library of Wisdom” and converses with legendary investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. While this Seeker and the librarian who guides him are fictional, everything Buffett and Munger say are actual quotes that Bevelin pulled from the duo’s prolific writings and public speaking.

I haven’t enjoyed the book as much as biographies, but I’m glad I picked it up, especially because of the sarcastically-titled chapter, “Only Learn From Your Own Terrible Experiences.”

Some excerpts:

“Learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead. This prescription is a sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement.”

Charlie Munger

“Mark Twain said that a man who picks up a cat by the tail learns something in a way that’s more effective than any alternative way. But that’s a terrible way to learn things…You shouldn’t have to try it to learn not to pee on an electric fence.”

Warren Buffett

“The more hard lessons you can learn vicariously rather than through your own hard experience, the better…That is a much more pleasant way to learn.”

Charlie Munger

“What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.”

Warren Buffett

Upon reading this in bed on Monday night, I put my Kindle down, looked at my dark ceiling, and wondered, “What if I’m wrong?”

Then I fell asleep.

Learn Lessons Others Learned the Hard Way

That night, my subconscious figured things out for me.

I’ve learned too many things the hard way for two reasons:

First, because of my naive overconfidence and nonconformism. But I’m not hubristic and independent-minded enough to disregard Buffett and Munger when they say the exact opposite of what I believe.

Second, because I hate being told what to do. If you tell me not to pee on an electric fence, that’ll just make me curious to see what happens. So I’d coax my little brother into giving it a wee.

Lucky for my brother and me, there’s a less shocking way for others’ hard-learned lessons to sometimes seep their way through my dense skull:


When you get lost in a story, you experience “narrative transportation.” You put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes, see what they see, and feel what they feel. So you can learn the hard way vicariously.

[More on narrative transportation in another podcast episode, Melanie Green’s appearance on You Are Not So Smart.]

That, I realized, is part of why I’ve found biographies so appealing.

Now it’s just a matter of putting what I’ve been reading to better use.

My New and Improved Learning Strategy

So what am I going to start doing differently?

Before making any big moves, I will seek out stories of others who’ve gone through similar situations. And I will value their hard-earned experience nearly as highly as my own.

That doesn’t mean I’ll copy what they do. It means I’ll try not to repeat their same mistakes.

And it doesn’t mean my life will become any easier. It just means I won’t make it any harder than it needs to be to take it in the direction I want (at least I hope so).

My life will still be full of hard lessons, but there’ll be fewer repeats and more originals. Then I can try to pass them on by sharing my stories.

The question is, Will you be willing to learn from them?

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About the author

I'm Chris. Canadian, husband, dad, writer, investor, athlete, and obsessed explorer of the secrets to living a never-boring, always improving, unfollowable life story.

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