Learning things the hard way is simply part of life.

Learning, one way or the other…

“I learned it the hard way.” I think everybody had an experience with this phrase. I mean it happens, like when you forget to lock your car and you come back and your personal belongings are stolen. Or you cheat during a test and the teacher catches you out and you score a 1, which really decreases your previously good average. Learning things the hard way. Haven’t we all been there in some shape or form? I know I have…

Then the phrase “Learned it hard way” really applies. It means that you learn from unpleasant experiences rather than being taught. Like, if you tried to warn somebody several times, but they won’t listen, then you’re like: “Well, I guess they’ll find out the hard way then.”

Graydon Carter once stated: “Most of us have learned the hard way that there are very few things can you absolutely count on in life”.

That said, there are several things we can always count on in life like toast with jam will fall jam-side down, or that the postman will come just as you step into the bath, that no bus shows for 30 minutes and then 3 arrive at the same time, or that you click on ‘send’ and then immediately spot a typo. Be honest here, you recognised some of these things.

What we can conclude is that learning ‘the hard way’ is an effective method of learning. The bad experience you achieved is still an experience and should prevent you from doing it again right?

We learn from experience. Like we know that after lightning you hear thunder and that we are not going to stand close to a high point, as there’s a change you get electrocuted. According to General Psychology: “learning is acquiring a relatively permanent change in behaviour through experience.” This means that we adapt our behaviour based on what we learn through experience.

There are two types of learning: observational learning and associative learning.

I could seriously elaborate on those types of learning, but the short story is that observational learning is about learning through observing others engage in different types of behaviours. Associative learning, on the other hand, is the process by which someone learns a connection between two stimuli. You have two forms of associative learning: classical and operant, but we’ll skip those two for the moment as I’ve probably already bored you enough with psychology.

Factors and Variable

What I find interesting is that the process of learning is influenced by a variety of factors. Teachers and/or parents might find these factors handy to know to guide kids through the learning process. There are many, let me tell you that, but some are worth highlighting:

The Personal Factors

First, you have personal factors such as ‘fatigue’ and ‘boredom’. The difference is that fatigue refers to mental or physical tiredness, which (shocker) decreases efficiency and capability to work. Boredom, on the contrary, is a lack of motivation or desire to work.

This links with the factor ‘interest’. Learning should always be stimulated with different types of tools, like videos, for example, to keep it interesting.

The most important personal factor of the learning process, also known as actually the heart of learning, is ‘motivation’. It really takes a person’s internal willpower to accomplish something. We can divide motivation into two elements: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by internal rewards. Extrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by external rewards. For example, someone who writes music for his own listening pleasure relies on intrinsic motivation, and a person who writes his songs for money is driven by extrinsic motivation.

The Environmental Factors

Enough about the personal factors, let’s go to the environmental factors. Environmental influences on learning already begin when the child is in the womb. Studies show that the physical, emotional, and mental condition of the mother influences the development of the foetus in the womb. Crazy, right? Apparently, it has something to do with stress levels. So, if a mum wasn’t in a good place when she was pregnant, it already has an impact on you’re the child’s level of intelligence and development.

Other environmental factors that influence learning capacity include things in your immediate surroundings: cultural, social and natural. Factors of nature seem quite logical to me, it has been found that humidity and high temperature can reduce mental efficiency. I could relate to that, always when I tried to work outside with sunny weather in The Netherlands (this happens very rarely) my concentration is really bad. You simply can’t concentrate since you just want to enjoy the good weather.

Your social surroundings include your school, home, favourite bar, basically anywhere where you have your family and friends around you. You can be sure that they can both positively and stupidly – thinking about some ‘interesting’ things my friends have done in the past – influence learning.

Lastly, cultural pressures and social expectations play a role, as the essence of culture is mirrored in its social and educational institutions. Therefore, the learning is greatly determined by the prospects and demands of your culture.

Social Media

A sort of ‘post-script’ environmental factor is the quite big influence is social media. Social media is seen as an important component in transmitting information. Does it have a place as a learning and teaching tool or it is simply a distraction? Again, it has its pro’s and con’s, but I’ll come back to that in another article. For now, let’s just say that social media does play a role in “learning the hard way”.
Nowadays, when something happens people have their smartphone. They film it, post it, share it, you name it and suddenly, the event is everywhere, good or bad. This is a positive thing if you filmed a theft or something, but a negative thing when you accidentally stumble over a doorstep for example, then your fall will become the laugh of the day.

Life goes on

At the end of the day, if we are going to learn things the hard way, hopefully, we learn quickly.


This post is brought to you by one of AQ’s Undergraduates, Paula van Staalduinen. As part of our internship programs undergraduates and classic interns are encouraged to take part in company culture. Paula’s primary project focuses on training programs and eLearning and how best to adapt this to industries under pressure.

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  1. […] a previous article, I wrote that we do learn from experience, especially when it’s a bad experience since we don’t […]

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